Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Religion, Sex and Puppets - Oh My!

The last time I was at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, there was a religious mother on stage with a fairly odd daughter that was taunted by friends and eventually got her revenge on them on. I return to the play Hand to God where a religious mother is on stage with a fairly odd son that allows a puppet to do his speaking for him. The play by Robert Askins had a sold-out run at the Ensemble Studio Theatre back in 2011 and MCC Theater has brought it to a full off-Broadway run in its current incarnation. 

Alex Mandell
A stellar cast gives their heart and soul to everything they do in this play. For that, I give a huge kudos to each and every one of them. They sell this odd story that has shades of Little Shop of Horrors with the black comedy of Batboy and the puppet sex of Avenue Q. We were lucky enough to witness Alex Mandell take on the lead role of teen Jason whose mom Margery (Geneva Carr) leads a puppet ministry class in the basement of a Texas Lutheran Church. The fact that Mandell was on for the first time in the role that Steven Boyer usually plays (and played in 2011) was an amazing feat unto itself. I was completely impressed and would not have known for a moment I was witnessing the debut of the actor in this role. He must play a shy teenager as well as a loud mouth sock puppet named Tyrone that has a mind and action of its own. He wrestles with himself, does the "Who's On First" routine, and is an all around joy to witness on stage. The audience (I’m sure full of some of Mandell’s friends) gave him the ovation he rightly deserved. Carr (who also played the mother in 2011) also gives a wonderful performance of the Texan widow unraveling before our eyes. With a quirkiness that reminded me of Annie Potts mixed with one of the woman from the former ABC show Good Christian Bitches, this Texan recognized that character right away. Religion, sex, and foul language abound in this play that touches on numerous taboo subjects. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has created a fast-paced evening – though personally, I found that evening to be a bit uneven.

This past weekend after the Oscars, there were numerous conversations on social media about the performance of Pink singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Can someone love the performance without caring for the overall production? People were moved by Pink's performance even though others felt she had destroyed the lyric by her choice of phrasing and breathing. In Hand to God, I absolutely loved each performance from the macho stud student of Michael Oberholtzer and wackiness of Sarah Stiles to the balancing act of a minster (Marc Kudisch) wanting to declare his love for Margery. Yet the phrasing choices made by playwright Robert Askins pulled me out of what could have been an amazing original night at the theater. After reading a Q&A with Askins, I discovered he was working through his own past and demons of the church, the loss of his dad at an early age and yes…he was even part of a puppetry ministry as a child. I think it is smart to use what you know when writing, but when the tone of a piece completely shifts midway through, it can take audiences a while to catch up.  

Case in point: intermission hit and I was declaring my love for the show. I thought it was fresh, clever and a great comedy! I understood all the accolades that had been bestowed from its earlier run and was so happy I was finally able to see it. And then Act II came taking a dark turn with the demonic puppet, a questionable subplot with the mother, and suddenly I felt as if I was in a different play. Mind you, through all of it the performers were still giving their all, the creative team delivered triumphantly in both acts (puppet design by Marte Ekhougan, set design by Beowulf Borritt, lighting design by Jason Lyons, costume design by Sydney Maresca, and sound design by Jill BC DuBoff), but the show was going down a black rabbit hole that didn't quite mesh with what had transpired in the first act.

My personal take: I wish the playwright had trusted his first instincts and allowed the show he was writing at the start to flourish into that same wild comedy in Act II. I wish quirky had not been replaced with black. And I definitely wish a producer or director would have pointed out that a preachy prologue and epilogue are not necessary simply because the piece is grounded in religion. The show - the point of a possessed puppet speaking for a teen that can’t always say what’s on his mind - can stand alone without the need to give us a sermon. But I suppose theater and church are so intertwined in this black comedy the playwright felt he needed to go the extra mile to give us his interpretation of good and evil. 

In the end, I recommend the show to people who enjoy twisted black comedies; that want to see the devil as a puppet stuck on a man’s hand; that can appreciate amazing live performances. But is it the Second Coming that it has been touted…I think Audrey II and the puppets of Avenue Q might have something to say about that.

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