Puppet see, puppet do

In the new world of impulsive white-guy supremacy, the gleeful hand-to-hand combat of "Hand to God" suddenly takes a menacing twist

The pew-like audience seating in Triangle Productions’ performance space, The Sanctuary, is fitting for Hand to God, Robert Askins’ church-set dark comedy that opens Triangle’s 2017-18 season. Director and designer Donald Horn’s set perfectly captures the wholesome tackiness of a church classroom, a scene ripe for disruption. And such disruption ensues when teenage Jason begins to realize that Tyrone, the sock puppet he made in his mom’s after-school Bible puppetry class, has taken on a life of its own.

By hand possessed: Caleb Sohigan plays Jason, whose hand puppet Tyrone takes on a wicked life of his own. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Tyrone rips chaotically and hilariously through Jason’s precariously balanced relationships: his mom, still grieving her husband and Jason’s father’s recent death; the girl he has a crush on; the class bully; the slightly smarmy pastor. Tyrone says all the things you’re not supposed to say, does all the things you’re not supposed to do, expresses all the wants you’re not supposed to have. He is, as the monologues that bookend the play suggest, an expression of humanity’s true nature, before some jerk (Tyrone uses a different word) made up the idea of good and evil, God and Satan.

But in a world where the fragile ego of a white man who would rather ruin hundreds of thousands of lives than accept that he can’t just do whatever he wants has sent us careening into moral and political chaos, Tyrone just doesn’t seem as charming as he used to.

It’s funny how even new plays can age strangely. Hand to God premiered off-Broadway in 2011, opened on Broadway and was nominated for Best Play in 2015, and now, in 2017, is appearing here in Portland at Triangle. That means it’s just two years removed from a well-received Broadway run. But what a two years they have been. Somehow, because of external events, Hand to God has come out the other side looking distinctly less appealing than it did when we all still assumed that the 2016 presidential election would just be Clinton v. Bush round two.

Despite the possibly possessed puppet’s subversive charms, Askins doesn’t soft-pedal Tyrone’s malevolence: he makes threats, he insults, he physically attacks. But the play’s interest relies on one’s willingness to accept– or at least to wonder whether– Tyrone might have a point. Might life be better if we could all just say what we meant and take what we wanted?

There’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing Tyrone stand up to Jason’s bullies, and Jason’s mother gaining (not quite convincingly, under Horn’s halting direction) the spirit to do the same. But that same aggression also spills out and harms others, making it clear that the characters aren’t really speaking truth to power, they’re just swinging wildly, punching down as often as they punch up. Chew out a bully in one instant, sexually harass a girl in the next. Dress down a hypocritical pastor one moment, but then take advantage of a child.

All hands on board for the big puppet problem. Photo: David Kinder/kinderpics

Askins is a good writer, and this duality is obviously intentional. But the continual hinting that things would be better if we all acted this way still smacks uncomfortably of the right-wingers who deride “PC culture” and complain about their free speech being muzzled when they’re asked to speak respectfully about women or people of color. Askins’ cavalier treatment of the damage his leading characters do, particularly surrounding issues of consent, felt acceptably within the darkly comic tone of the play when I saw it in 2015. Now, it feels like a reminder of what those pesky rules of behavior we have agreed upon as a society are usually for: protecting those within that society that are most vulnerable.

“Why this play, why now?” is the first question any artistic director or producer has to answer about a revival. With this production, Triangle doesn’t make a successful case in favor of Hand to God. Caleb Sohigan as Jason and Mark Schwann as Pastor Greg offer particularly charming and nuanced performances, and Sohigan’s puppetry is impressive. Tyrone is just as gleeful and slyly charming as he needs to be. And right here, right now, I don’t think a play about the seductive, destructive power of sad white boys who want to act out without consequence is the story we need to hear.


Triangle Productions’ Hand to God continues through Sept. 30 at The Sanctuary. Ticket and schedule information here.

One Response.

  1. Chris says:

    I just saw this play and find this review rather myopic. I am not sure how your viewing experience translated into a naval-gazing commentary on politics, but I recommend rewatching the show with a clearer lens. Enjoy the performance and play for what it is and try not to pollute the performance with your own political and social ideologies.

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