If you thought the puppets in Avenue Q were filthy and foulmouthed, wait until you meet Tyrone, the profanity-spewing sock puppet from hell who causes plenty of havoc in Robert Askins' hilarious Hand to God. The Obie-winning, Tony-nominated Best Play makes its Valley debut in a spectacular co-production from Stray Cat Theatre and Phoenix Theatre, featuring one of the best casts I've ever seen in a Stray Cat show, led by Eric Zaklukiewicz who is brilliant as both the shy, troubled teen Jason and his hand puppet Tyrone, who has a ferocious mind of his own.
Director Ron May scores once again in finding a cast who are able to exceptionally portray both the humor and heartfelt sides of this group of troubled souls without ever turning this black comedy into farce. Even though it is a comedy, the truth that May and his cast bring to this play and their parts is exquisite.
With a clear distinction between both characters, Eric Zaklukiewicz is amazing as both Jason and Tyrone. While the difference in voice, tone and delivery that he creates between the shy, introverted and withdrawn Jason and the outrageous Tyrone is excellent, it is the addition of his polished puppeteering skills that creates two incredibly distinct individuals. His performance is so superb that after a while I started thinking there were two people on stage whenever Jason and Tyrone were conversing. Elyse Wolf Davidson is just as excellent as Margery, the woman who lost her husband and can't face losing her son as well. She throws herself into the part of this jittery and nervous, lost soul of a woman who is trying to heal her wounds. Davidson's portrayal of the confusion Margery feels about finding some potential pleasures with the boyish, reckless Timothy while the quiet Pastor Greg is courting her and also dealing with the possible satanic possession of her son is exceptional in a performance that is both fearless and flawless.
With a sweet and sensible disposition, Louis Farber is simply lovely as the caring and kind Pastor Greg, and Vaughn Sherman is sublime as Timothy, who starts out cocky but ends up demoralized based on a series of hilarious setbacks. As Jessica, Michelle Chin is equally as good as the timid teen who comes alive once her hand puppet comes onto the scene. The conversation that Chin and Zaklukiewicz have about the troubles of being a teenager while their puppets are engaged in other activities, and their facial expressions indicate their embarrassment and humorously horrific feelings about what they are witnessing, is a hilarious highlight in a show with many comical high points.
Aaron Sheckler's scenic design perfectly establishes the rooms in the cheery church while the costumes from Maci Cae Hosler work well to portray the specific characters. Cari Smith's puppet designs are excellent, including a hysterical added moment for Jolene, Jessica's puppet. The remaining creative elements are all professional and confident in their designs, including the polished lighting from Dallas Nichols, the sound from Peter Bish, which features several perfect scene change music selections, and Jessica Florez's abundance of appropriate properties. Diane Senffner's dialect coaching establishes perfect Texas accents from the cast while Andrea Robertson's fight choreography delivers some impressively frightening and realistic moments. The production also clearly benefits from Toby Yatso's skilled puppet training.
Hand to God is a comedy that turns the idea of religion on its head while also painting unique and identifiable characters: the deeply troubled mother and son who are struggling from the effects of a traumatic situation; the good pastor who is trying to do the right things; and two teens trying to grapple with adolescent issues and their raging hormones. It may be a shocking and outrageous play that is also vulgar, profane and perverse, but May's succinct direction and a confident cast that are incredibly fun to watch help make this both an outrageous comedy and an interesting expose into the lives of a group of fractured souls.