August 5, 2016 at 1:27 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Puppet projection
Hand to God, gay news, Washington Blade

Liam Forde in ‘Hand to God’ at Studio Theatre. (Photo by Amy Horan)

‘Hand to God’
Extended through Aug. 28
Studio Theatre
1501 14th St., N.W.

Theater has a long history filled with unsavory puppets ranging from Punch and Judy’s club-wielding Mr. Punch to the grouchy, porn-addicted Trekkie in “Avenue Q.” But none come close to “Hand to God’s” Tyrone.  This hand puppet’s rough and hammy charm belies a vicious fiend who doggedly nudges his handler to embrace his baser, more sinister side.

A darkly funny exploration of good and evil penned by Texas native Robert Askins, “Hand to God” premiered off-Broadway in 2011 and then moved on to Broadway. Now it’s making its regional premiere as part of Studio Theatre’s new and purposely eclectic X series.

The trouble begins when recently widowed Margery (Susan Rome) takes the helm of the youth puppet ministry at Mount Logan Lutheran Church of Cypress, Texas. Puppetry isn’t her passion, but she’s trying to keep busy. The group is sparsely attended: there’s Margery’s mild-mannered son Jason (Liam Forde); Jessica (Caitlin Collins), a cool girl who purports an interest in Balinese shadow puppetry; and Timothy (Ryan McBride), a puffed-up bad boy who feigns no interest in puppets but needs somewhere to go while his mother attends 12-step meetings.

Rome is a revelation as messy Margery. Beneath the preternaturally sunny veneer, she’s dealing with guilt associated with her husband who literally ate himself to death, a withdrawn son, and pesky Pastor Greg whose intentions are more amorous than pastoral. She’s also secretly angry and wildly inappropriate. After a particularly violent and vandalistic venting of feelings involving Timothy, the pair indulges in some riotous, athletic sex.

Meanwhile, Jason is developing both a real flair for hand puppetry and a serious crush on Jessica. He demonstrates his formidable skills by pairing with his puppet Tyrone in a charming rendition of Abbot and Costello’s classic comedy routine “Who’s on First?”

But increasingly, Tyrone blurts out the feelings that good people don’t dare express. Forever attached to Jason’s left hand, the puppet grows increasingly vile, encouraging Jason to disrespect his mother, kick Timothy’s ass and bed the girl. Whether Tyrone is a way for a hurting kid to work out his inner demons, or whether this foul-mouthed felt doll is in fact a demon is up for debate. Playwright Askins lets the audience decide.

As Jason, New York-based out actor Liam Forde makes his return to Studio. (Last season he played Luke, a shy wannabe soccer player in the memorable romantic comedy “Jumpers for Goalposts.”) Forde ably assays the very opposite characters of Jason and Tyrone, adroitly demonstrating the dexterity and concentration that this challenge requires.

In a particularly display of concentration, Jason and Jessica engage in a heartfelt dialogue while their respective Muppet knock-offs indulge in enthusiastic puppet sex. It’s mostly funny, but at times Tyrone’s antics are shrill and a tad tiresome. Luckily though, under Joanie Schultz’s direction, the play is superbly designed and well acted. In lesser hands, it could be a disaster.

With astonishing verisimilitude, set designer has Daniel Conway has created a harshly lit church basement all-purpose room in Studio’s Stage 4, a top floor black box space replete with happy Christian posters, play area, snack bar and small raised stage. Because the production is an immersive experience, the actors and audience (seated on stackable chairs around long tables covered in plastic table cloths) share much of the same space. Also, each table features a fully loaded craft caddy and plain white socks with which audience members can create puppets of their own while waiting for the play to begin.

Chicago-based actors Collins and McBride give strong performances as young, would-be puppeteers. And Getman’s Pastor Greg, though a bit creepy around the edges, ultimately proves a steadfast and mature shepherd to his dysfunctional flock. Similarly, along with the madness, playwright Askins delivers some sensitive observations about family and community.

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