Friday, June 24, 2016

Phoenix Theatre's 'Hand to God' puts personal crises through a puppet blender

Jason (Nathan Robbins) argues with Tyrone
Puppet ministry takes remote stories — foundational in the Judeo-Christian tradition — and makes them cozy and relatable. Whatever lessons apply in the tale of Joseph and his brothers, or the return of the Prodigal Son, can perhaps be conveyed more tellingly through cuddly manipulation of handcrafted, hand-worn doll characters.

In "Hand to God," which I visited as the second week of the Phoenix Theatre production opened Thursday, we don't get to see how this aspect of contemporary Christian teaching is supposed to work. Playwright Robert Askins has another end in view: to explore what the distancing effect of expressing moral and spiritual values through puppetry might mean in loss of control, in channeling deeply felt problems through puppetry so thoroughly as to create monsters. There's an aspect of voodoo in this process, like the hysterical focus on pricked rag moppets in "The Crucible."

Cypress, Texas, is a small Texas town where a Protestant church includes a youth workshop for puppet ministry. Margery is a recent widow in charge of the unruly class, fending off an amorous pastor's suave advances while resisting his unsympathetic scheduling demands. The puppet group has to make a presentation at an upcoming service, but the teens are uncooperative: one of them a snide bully, one a hard-to-motivate girl, and the third Margery's son Jason — an adept puppeteer alarmingly off-message and inseparable from Tyrone, his foul-mouthed, increasingly demonic creation.

"Hand to God" is a Southern expression intended to give assurance of the speaker's sincerity. The hand is crucial to Jason's identity, split between his depressed, confused teenage self and his loud, boastful, insulting puppet. Nathan Robbins, in another virtuoso starring performance for Phoenix, manages rapidfire dialogue between the two flawlessly. At the same time, the actor registers Jason's  split personality's defiance of the situation he finds himself in, grieving for his suddenly deceased father and harboring resentment against his mother.

With ulterior motives, Pastor Greg tries to minister to the distraught Margery.
Alienation of who we are from our hands is strikingly supported in the Christian tradition. The hand is oddly detachable in Jesus' preaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, one of his "hard sayings" advises: "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."

Later on, in emphasizing the need to do charity privately, his famous hyperbole runs: "...when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." These precepts could well be inscribed on the puppet's demonic DNA.

Jessica's and Jason's puppets get it on.
Directed by Mark Routhier, the Phoenix production drives home Askins' focus on hands as both agents and victims of suffering. There are a couple of realistically staged hand injuries, though they pale in cringe-worthiness to a bitten-off ear. When a character goes off the rails, the plunge is startling and graphic. Angela R. Plank signals Margery's anxiety and desperation in the first scene and anger at her refractory son in the third. The explosion that ensues in her subsequent encounter with the menacing, needy Timothy is as understandable as it is shocking. Adam Tran, whose every gesture conveys cockiness masking insecurity, plays him with a sure grip on our likely hostility and furtive sympathy.

Paul Nicely played Pastor Greg with the bland self-assurance many of us have experienced in men of the cloth. Greg's wooing of Margery has behind it a thinly veiled expectation of being dominant. Yet, later, he is ineffectual when circumstances seem to call for an exorcism of the demon that has taken control of Jason through Tyrone. The resolution that eludes the reverend gentleman comes about through a riotous canoodling of puppets, engineered by Jessica, played with a subtle and partially blocked winsomeness by Jaddy Ciucci.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's great story "Absolution," a young Catholic boy wrestles with his conscience in a tangle of misdeeds concerning doctrine about confession and communion. The author informs us: "Rudolph reserved a corner of his mind where he was safe from God, where he prepared the subterfuges with which he often tricked God." The irony is that the lad thinks of God as a sort of chief priest, subject to being misled as human priests may be in the confessional or at the altar rail.

In his blocked grieving process, the Protestant Jason, whose tradition prizes direct communication with the Almighty with no intermediary, has a vacuum in that corner of his mind. God's adversary rushes in to fill it. Any subterfuges concocted there are not his, but the devil's. Through his puppet disciple, in a splendid display of diabolical fury at the end of Act 1 (credit Jeffrey Martin's technical direction and Laura Glover's lighting design), all hell breaks loose.

Any mental safe corner Jason might wish to claim has been taken over by the puppet. The effect on him and those around him is chilling, and this production is unsparing in putting that across. Yet in the course of its dark comedy, the play reaffirms the divine comedy: The devil is a powerful adversary, but has to exercise his rage and bluster while knowing he will ultimately suffer defeat. Behind "Hand to God" lies a theology that John Milton would have understood.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]