Friday, July 27, 2018

Review of "Hand of God"

Robert Askins’ outrageous, fiendish, and raunchy play, Hand to God, is receiving a stellar production at Theaterworks in Hartford.  But be prepared!  This highly entertaining comedy-drama, besides being very funny, may make you wince and even squirm in your seat.
Nick LaMedica and Tyrone in "Hand to God."
The story centers on Jason, a teenager despondent over his father’s death six months earlier.  He has almost shut down over the anguish he feels.  The world is suffocating him.  He doesn’t communicate well with his mother Margery who, as a way to cope with her grief, has started a puppet workshop at the local church run by Pastor Greg.  Jason and two other adolescents populate the class.  Timothy, a slacker who has more then a puppy love passion for Margery; and Jessica, a reticent, but assured young woman.  Within this stifling tension Jason’s hand puppet, Tyrone, suddenly acquires a mind of its own, a mind both nefarious and depraved, which proves toxic for all involved. 
Miles G. Jackson and Lisa Velten Smith in "Hand to God."
Askins has written a truly original work that shrewdly addresses a number of significant themes such as the frailty and unpredictability of family dynamics and the not always successful relationship of the church in people’s lives. At its core, though, the play is an examination of a young man’s descent and, finally ascent, from a personal hell.  Initially, the character of Jason is confused as he silently lashes out at those he loves and respects.  He doesn’t know how to channel his pain and suffering until Tyrone seemingly comes to life and begins to take charge.  The puppet becomes a wildly inflamed conduit for all the pent-up hurt and suffering he is experiencing along with the sexual awakening he is encountering.  While the puppet is devilish, it is not possessed of anything greater then a youth’s demonstrative cries for help. 

Nick LaMedica is superb as Jason.  He expressively conveys the angst and inner turmoil churning inside the teenager.  But his portrayal is only half of his outstanding performance.  During most of the show he is also the life essence of the demonic, foul-mouthed hand puppet Tyrone.  This is no simple sock puppet, but one manipulated with two rods.  LaMedica transforms this inanimate being into a fully fleshed out part of the ensemble.  Many times during the play the two—Jason and Tyrone—are arguing or realistically battling amongst themselves.  It is a truly bravo performance by the actor.
Miles G. Jackson and Nick LaMedica in "Hand to God."
Lisa Velten Smith as Margery is impressive as the impulsive, manic and fragile mother, still suffering the devastating loss of her husband, trying to communicate with her angry son, and struggling to seek solace in her faith.  She gives, at times, an over-the-top performance that is both devastatingly funny and heartwrenching.  Peter Benson is admirable in the role of the plain-speaking, vulnerable and lustful Pastor Greg.  He infuses the minister with a humane and caring quality as the commotion on stage becomes more volatile.  Miles G. Jackson is divine as the bored, slightly menacing and childlike libidinous teenager Timothy.  Maggie Carr imbues the character of Jessica with a no-nonsense, unflappable and plucky spirit.

Director Tracy Brigden skillfully brings out the disquietude within the production.  She creates a controlled mayhem and methodical rhythm to the play without the performances getting too off-kilter.  Her foremost accomplishment is the work she has done with LaMedica and Tyrone, both separately and as they meld into one.  Even though the focus of the show is on the twosome the director secures passionate and animated performances from the other actors.

Scenic Designer Luke Cantarella has successfully created a number of functional, everyday settings on a revolving stage.  In addition, he pulls out all the stops forging a hellish nightmare of a space for the play’s conclusion.

Hand to God, an audacious, funny, and coarse exaltation, playing through August 26th.

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