Review: Hilarity and hypocrisy the focus of Berkeley Rep’s brilliant ‘Hand to God’

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Tyrone comes alive thanks to tortured soul Jason (Michael Doherty), being fawned upon by young Jessica (Carolina Sanchez) in Berkeley Rep’s “Hand to God.” (Photo by Kevin Berne)

So after witnessing the sublimely entertaining and wildly maniacal Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “Hand to God,” I have a few questions:

What the hell did I just witness?

What the hell was happening up there?

How did those puppets make all that sweet love, and why was it kinda hot?

And most importantly,

How quickly can I get back to Berkeley to see it again?

To say that “Hand to God” is full of wild energy is a vicious understatement; it’s like saying a threatened skunk gives off a lightly scented mist.

But part of its brilliance is it’s not a show that is just crazy this and wild that. At the heart of this piece rests a serious message, one that challenges a believer’s beliefs about the role of Satan in the lives of those who are driven by God at every turn.

So there’s young Jason (an absolute, full-throttle tour-de-force by Michael Doherty), who lost his dad to a heart attack only six months ago. As a way to help him deal with his tortured feelings, his mother Margery (Laura Odeh in a perfectly funny and sultry Southern performance) starts a puppet ministry at the church of Pastor Greg (perfectly cast David Kelly), a man so holy that his version of swearing is saying the words “Planned Parenthood” with a full-blown venom only used for Chick-Fil-A boycotters.

Under the watchful eye of the bible class walls that have posters with catch phrases such as “Know Jesus, Know Peace” and “God is Cool,” a puppet named Tyrone was born. All Tyrone needs is a hand to make his song take flight. Yeah, I guess it can be considered a sort of perverse “Phantom of the Opera.”

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Pastor Greg (David Kelly) longs for the lovely Margery (Laura Odeh) in “Hand to God.” (Photo by Kevin Berne)

With Margery pushing the gumpish Pastor Greg, a man who uses the power of prayer to try and get Margery to relent, and his advances elsewhere, it’s the perfect time for Tyrone to come alive. It’s also the perfect time for certified puppeteer juvenile delinquent Timothy (a bad boy portrayal by Michael McIntire) to make his move on his curvalicious puppet teacher. Finally, it’s the perfect time for the lonely and angry Jason to start connecting to innocent sweetheart Jessica (Carolina Sanchez, who balances out the action beautifully). She is a young and innocent girl, in awe of Timothy’s puppet skills, even blown away by his writing abilities. After he does a puppet version of “Who’s on First,” the pleased Jessica asks him if he wrote that. Of course, he admits.

Which brings us to the next thing in the perfect timing scale. Tyrone starts off as a toothless puppet that looks like a nasty green sock. But as the angst of Jason comes through with rapid-fire ease, the little green thing is loaded with sharp teeth and spikey orange hair, ready to get down to the business of making Hell on earth happen.

No character is spared when it comes to making a bevy of bad choices. The writing of young playwright Robert Askins is loaded with truths masked in hilarity. His roots are in Texas, and Southern religion is something he obviously understands well. In the hands of director David Ivers, on a typically gorgeous and multi-functional Berkeley Rep set designed by Jo Winiarski, the story and all its components are masterful.

What’s also masterful is the performance of Doherty, who is absolutely committed, frenetic and sharp as nails. He is not doing ventriloquism. There is no part of his performance that is trying to create an illusion of who is speaking, mainly because there is no need. When Tyrone speaks, you look at Tyrone. No questions asked. Tyrone is so simple yet so full of energy and so animated, it’s a striking tableau later in the play when he simply sits and doesn’t move at all.

Where the play really is phenomenal is the truths that are explored, and the complexities of religion, which are examined through vicious satire. For those who have a specific view of theology, when does a choice become a bad choice based on the will of a human? Is there a Satan that makes us do bad things? The characters on stage all take part in horrendous actions, but seem more than willing to put those choices in the hands of a force that may or may not exist. It can either be seen as people who are incredibly faithful, or lemmings that have zero critical thinking skills, people who cling to a scapegoat to justify their own crap decisions.

With Tyrone having so much freedom to step outside the lives of the human forms, Askins gives him the power to puncture the holier than thou bubble that encompass most of these characters. Some may call it blasphemy; others may say it’s calling out hypocrisy. There are no easy answers, but lots of serious questions that are brought forth in the midst of thunderous belly laughs and plenty of slash and blood.

All in all, “Hand to God” is a non-stop, rollicking good time for those who possess a much more irreverent sense of humor, and those who can handle a puppet love scene so steamy it makes the same scene from puppet theatre standard bearer “Avenue Q” look like a first kiss by two brace-faced 13-year-olds.

And in looking back at one of my original questions, a slight adjustment is most definitely necessary:

What Hell did I just witness?

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Hand to God”
Written by Robert Askins
Directed by David Ivers
The Word: Brilliant on so many levels, and belly laughs aplenty in a show led by the remarkable performance of Doherty.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through March 19th
Running Time: 2 hours, including one 15-minute intermission
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre
2025 Addison Street at Shattuck, Berkeley, CA 94702
Tickets range from $29 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit berkeleyrep.org

 

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