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Puppets Play with People in “Hand to God” at the Incline

Review by Blair Godshall of “Hand to God”: Incline Theatre

The play “Hand to God” could be described as a dysfunctional family drama/teenager coping with angst saga/angry satire on Christianity/ horror movie/ raunchy comedy/ puppet show. All these elements coexist like a cat fight you can’t stop watching in Robert Askins’ script, now playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre. 

Puppetry is the show’s signature but it’s not as similar to“Avenue Q” as you might think. I was expecting every actor to have a puppet but it’s not the case here. Both this play and “Avenue Q” contain “R” rated adult humor so don’t bring the kids. Manipulated principally and masterfully by the hilarious Alexander Slade (who plays unhappy teen Jason), the all-too-animated puppet Tyrone is the show’s most compelling character. The mild-mannered Jason’s uncontrolled, raging, teenage alter-ego, Tyrone, curses, threatens, intimidates, seduces, and physically attacks other characters. His self-image is that of well… Satan himself. 

Slade does a marvelous job, not only of manipulating the puppet physically but in switching seamlessly between Jason’s younger, more tentative voice, and Tyrone’s lower-pitched growl. Playing two characters (or two manifestations of the same character) is no easy task, and Slade is more than up to it. I was really impressed with his performance and ability to lure the audience in. Jessica (Hope Pauly) plays a sweet girl who has a crush on Jason. I won’t give anything away, but her character surprised me the most.

Jason’s family is in crisis. His father recently died, apparently of overeating, and his mother, Margery (Karie Gipson), a woman beyond the verge of a nervous breakdown with an appetite for rough sex, is nearly always out of control. Her character begins at a high level of anxious intensity and stays there throughout the play giving her a one-dimensional feel. 

The most ambiguous character is Greg (Brian Anderson), the pastor of the church in which Margery and the teenagers participate in a puppet ministry (yes, you read that right). We first see him in a cringe-worthy, uncomfortable attempt to romance Margery, then later he seems to want to help the others through their difficulties, but I still can’t get past the character’s creepiness. 

Timothy (Jack Kremer) plays the role of a total jerk with great believability where everyone in the audience will want to take a swipe at him, but they won’t because the other characters in the play do it for us. Timothy wants only one thing and finds it in a hilarious scene for which director Dylan Shelton deserves praise and a high-five for staging (you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to when you see the play). 

The technical aspects of the production are well executed. Brett Bowling’s set is a convincing reproduction of a church basement/room, complete with religious posters and cheap furniture (notably the beanbag chairs). The set serves a variety of functions but some of the set changes slow the play’s pace at times. This is a props-heavy show, and designer Caren Brady provides a nice collection of Bibles, plastic toys, pictures, bookcases, etc., many of which are abused from the characters’ emotional wildness. 

The lighting/sound designer (Denny Reed) memorably changesthe lighting to dramatic red when Tyrone is at his most devilish and there is a nice effect when Timothy puts out one of the lights in the church basement but my question then is, how does a lightbulb come back on if it was broken? Smaller sound effects, such as a car door closing when Jason gets out of Margery’s car, are well coordinated with the action.

Like I mentioned before, this is not a play for children, so don’t let the puppets fool you into thinking otherwise (those little devils; no pun intended). Additionally, it more than pokes fun at organized Christian religions and many will find it to be sacrilegious, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you. For all the hilarity, it’s a pretty dark play and yet, audiences will relate to the play’s over-the-top humor and connection to the struggles of a troubled young man. The elusive Tyrone starts and ends the show as a foul-mouthed lecturer on the history and sociology of religion. He might be a kind of external demonic force as well as the voice of Jason’s anger, grief, and frustration, but Askins refrains from providing easy answers.

Hand to God plays at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theatre
Jan. 23-Feb. 9 [East Price Hill]   For tickets, call the theater at 513-241-6550 or go here: http://www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/Incline/News.aspx