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City Theatre's 'Hand to God' comedy includes a puppet but isn't for kids

| Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, 6:39 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Actor Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theater's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Maggie Carr, left, as Jessica and Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theater's production of 'Hand to God' which runs from Sept. 24th to Oct. 16th, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Maggie Carr as Jessica and Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Tim McGeever as Pastor Greg and Lisa Velten Smith as Margery in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
(From left) Michael Greer as Timothy, Tim McGeever as Pastor Greg, Lisa Velten Smith as Margery and Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Maggie Carr as Jessica and Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
From left to right, Michael Greer as Timothy, Tim McGeever as Pastor Greg, Lisa Velten Smith as Margery, Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone and Maggie Carr as Jessica in City Theater's production of 'Hand to God' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Actor Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Actor Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Actor Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
(From left) Michael Greer as Timothy, Nick LaMedica as Jason with puppet Tyrone and Maggie Carr as Jessica in City Theatre's production of 'Hand to God,' which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 16, 2016.
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Andrew Veenstra, John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen, Jessica Krueger in the national tour of 'War Horse'
Kelly Vernon | The Mt. Pleasant Journal
Taylor Bradley, portraying Audrey, cowers in the presence of a full-grown Audrey II in 2014 during the stage debut of 'Little Shop of Horrors,' the Mt. Pleasant Area Senior High School Drama Club's spring musical, at the high school auditorium.
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The Bad Idea Bears in “Avenue Q”
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The Tin Man from 'The Woodsman'

City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden likes to include a comedy in every season.

That's not as easy as you'd think, she says.

First of all, the works have to fit City Theatre's mission of producing contemporary plays that are new to Pittsburgh audiences.

And contemporary playwrights are not creating a lot of comedies.

She's not talking about plays such as last season's “Sex With Strangers,” which included moments of humor within its drama.

What she looks for are actual comedies such as “Elemeno Pea” that City did in 2015 or its 2013 production of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.”

“There are few comedies around,” Brigden says.

So she was happy to find herself laughing out loud as she read the script for Robert Askins' “Hand to God.”

“Robert Askins is a fantastic new voice in the American theater. He draws on his own experiences growing up in a tight-knit Lutheran community in Texas in this cock-eyed, coming-of-age story,” Brigden says. “It's a raucous exploration of the human — and puppet — condition, where nothing is sacred.”

Set in the basement of a small-town church in West Texas, “Hand to God” is an irreverent and racy play about the struggle between a grieving teenager and Tyrone, his increasingly demonic sock puppet.

As Tyrone ratchets up his rage and his anti-social behavior, his personality changes imperil Jason's already shaky relationships with his mother, his preacher, the neighborhood bully and his classmate, Jessica.

Adults play all the characters, and it's definitely not a play for children.

Nothing is sacred as Tyrone unleashes an unstoppable tsunami of profanity, physical violence, mental abuse and sexual activity while firmly attached to Jason's unwilling hand.

“Where else in Pittsburgh can you see a cadre of puppets committing more than half of the deadly sins live on stage each night?” Brigden says.

Comedies take more effort to produce than dramas, and this one is a particularly big-scale production, Brigden says.

There are five major scenes, some of which come with a splattering of blood, along with two big, crazy sex scenes and lots of slapstick comedy and violence.

To help bring the show to life, Brigden has expanded the technical and design staff.

In addition to scene designer Tony Ferrieri, lighting designer Andrew David Ostrowski, costume designer Tracy Christiansen and sound designer Elizabeth Atkinson, City Theatre has hired Stephanie Shaw to design and build the show's many puppets, dialect coach Nancy McNulty McGeever and a fight choreographer to handle people-to-people and puppet-to-people brawls.

But there's more to “Hand to God” than sex, mayhem and creatively strung-together swear words.

“What makes the play so sneakily resonant is how Mr. Askins exposes the base impulses, the sexual, impulsive, potentially violent ones, that just about everyone harbors to some small degree,” said New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood when the play opened on Broadway in 2015.

And while it may be out of bounds for some, it's not offensive, Brigden says.

“It's the opposite of offensive. It's not anti-religion. It's anti-hypocritical behavior. ... Ultimately, it has got a good message about families moving past grief and where you find strength.”

‘Hand to God' will run through Oct. 17 at City Theatre, South Side. Productions generally are at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 5:30 and 9 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $37.50-$44. Details: 412-431-2489 or citytheatrecompany.org

Alice T. Carter is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

Puppets on stage

Puppets of all sizes and persuasions often share scenes with human actors on stage.

It's not a cost-saving measure to increase the size of a cast without having to pay another actor.

Whether it's small cloth- covered hand puppets like those in Robert Askins' “Hand to God,” string-operated marionettes or bunraku characters controlled by one or more artists, they are versatile performers with capabilities of their own.

Consider the wise-cracking meerkat Timon, his warthog buddy Pumba or the bureaucratic hornbill Zazu in Disney's musical “The Lion King.” They bridge the animal and human worlds with a charm and patter that is beyond the reach of even the most talented animal.

Puppets also are able to say and do things that make their thoughts and actions more acceptable to audiences.

“Putting things in a felt-covered cartoon world distances them, neuters them, but also makes them palatable,” Askins said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “They become animals and thinking creatures, this multifaceted mix.”

Here are some other puppet characters that enlivened recent plays and musicals:

• Joey in “War Horse,” produced by Lincoln Center Theater and the National Theatre of Great Britain, played on Broadway from 2011-13. Manipulated by several actors, Joey captured audience emotions and attention as he struggled to survive the horrors of World War I combat.

• Audrey in “Little Shop of Horrors” grew from a small seedling into a man-eating plant with a warped sense of humor. Try finding a real plant that can do that. Based on a 1960 sci-fi movie, the musical debuted off-Broadway in 1982 and on Broadway in 2003. It's a perennial favorite with schools and regional theaters.

• The Bad Idea Bears in “Avenue Q,” two of the cutest, seemingly nonthreatening stuffed bears, lead the young and impressionable Princeton and his fellow characters into irresponsible actions such as spending the rent money on beer. The musical played for six years on Broadway after its debut in 2003.

• Tin Man in “The Woodsman” was a life-size rod puppet operated by performers. The show tells the back story of how the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” lost his heart and other body parts in a dark world where words are dangerous. He was one of several characters played by puppets in Strangeman and Co.'s dramatic movement piece that opened off-Broadway in 2015.

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