Masters of SOCK Puppets

More than halfway through the second post-Millennium decade, even as advancements in technology have increased both the capabilities of, and consumers’ access to, visual entertainments, it’s interesting to note that some of the most commercially enduring productions have been presented in a medium that’s long been considered antiquated. As 2011’s Book of Mormon sets out to traverse the country once again and this year’s runaway smash Hamilton begins its first run with a reshuffled cast, not only is theater relevant, it continues to offer some of the most provocative and subversive social commentary of any art form.

Robert Askins’ hit Hand to God — which premiered on Broadway in 2015 — is yet another example of both the vibrancy and resonance of theater today.

Though the play didn’t enjoy the meteoric success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop-infused historical account of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, or Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s irreverent sendup of organized religion (The Book of Mormon), Hand to God was still one of the most talked-about Broadway productions of the last half-decade.

The reasons for its positive critical reception and uneven box office success are no mystery, as the conceit of Askins’ play is as eccentric as any popular production currently running – Hand to God has both a fundamentalist church in rural Texas as its setting and a demonic sock puppet as one of its main characters. The play follows teenaged members of the church’s congregation as they set out to organize a Christian puppet show for an upcoming service, when Tyrone — the foul-mouthed sock puppet complete with stringy red hair and crazed, googly eyes — announces himself to be Satan and commences trying to lead the group to sin. Along the way, puppets engage in violence and sexual acts as themes of temptation, faith, addiction and the dangers of repressed emotions are all explored with a kind of dark alacrity.

“You can enjoy Hand to God merely as a festival of filthy hilarity, like The Book of Mormon,” said New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood after his third time seeing the play. “But as I watched the play [this time]… I found myself peering more closely into its psychological depths, and finding in it a weird mirror of our unsettling times.”

Aside from being noteworthy for its exploration of unholy themes, Hand to God has also been praised for being downright hilarious.

“The reception the play deserves is the one it gets nightly at the Booth [Theatre]: roars of gleeful laughter,” said Timeout New York. And The New York Daily News wrote that the play was “so ridiculously raunchy, irreverent and funny, it’s bound to leave you sore from laughing.”

Meanwhile, Askins – who studied at Ensemble Studio Theatre alongside emerging playwrights like the Pulitzer-nominated Amy Herzog (4,000 Miles) and the Pulitzer-winning Annie Baker (The Flick) — has been hailed as a phenomenal and rare talent.

Certainly the play’s capacity to relate to contemporary issues was a factor in Players by the Sea’s decision to bring Hand to God to town (the play begins a two-week run at PBTS on Nov. 4). The Jacksonville Beach-based community theater recently celebrated 50 years of putting on engaging performances of significant, challenging and often provocative contemporary works.

For the production of Hand to God, PBTS veteran Austin Farwell (A Behanding in Spokane) has assumed the lead role of both the teenaged Jason as well as Tyrone, the puppet the boy will eventually try to exorcise from his arm. Several other PBTS vets also return to the stage in this comedy, including Kasi Walters (also A Behanding in Spokane) playing Jason’s recently widowed mother, Margery, and Rodney Holmes (Memphis) taking on the role of Pastor Greg, the clergyman who calls upon the kids to put on the puppet show in the first place.

Unconventional and hysterical, PBTS’s production of Hand to God is bound to be a welcome respite from what Askins once called the “phenomenally dull … poetic grad-schoolery” that mass culture often ascribes to contemporary theater, where he says often “everything takes too long” and the show “tediously explores the beauty in ourselves.”

“It’s not church,” Askins told the New York Times in January. “Even though it feels like church a lot when we go these days.”

Other productions notwithstanding, thanks to plays like Hand to God, the theater has never been more compelling.

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