The best puppets take on a life of their own so that you suddenly find yourself detached from the puppeteer and wholly focused on the once inanimate object that has suddenly assumed a voice, movement style and opinions that are all its own. It is a very weird phenomenon, to say the least, and an ancient theatrical form. And nowhere have I seen the whole thing done with more skill, wit, conviction and pure demonic glee than in “Hand to God,” the Broadway hit by Robert Askins now in its Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, where Alex Weisman is giving a wholly breathtaking virtuosic performance.
‘HAND TO GOD’ Highly recommended When: Through Oct. 30 Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Tickets: $15 – $60 Info: http://www.victorygardens.org Run time: 2 hours, with one intermission
Weisman, a young actor who has performed often at TimeLine Theatre, Chicago Shakespeare and on many other stages here, as well as on TV, was not trained as a puppeteer. So his remarkable ability here to manipulate and interact with his alter ego, Tyrone — a Kermit the Frog look-alike sock puppet with long, gangly arms operated by sticks — is altogether mind-boggling. He brings a precision and subtlety to his puppet’s existence that makes you believe it is a living, breathing, thinking creature. Just watch the tilt of the puppet’s head that suggests it is listening, or the suggestive movements of its arms, or the inner rage that animates its mischievous “soul.”
There is a true touch of maniacal genius at work in the whole thing, which, of course, also requires the actor to have a life of his own. For there is Jason, a smart but deeply troubled teenager steeped in the Christian fundamentalist world of small town Cypress, Texas, and there is his alter ego, Tyrone, who embodies his fierce internal rebellion. And you might well be warned right here: If you thought that the sex between puppets in the musical “Avenue Q” was racy, as the saying goes, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
Fittingly, much of “Hand to God” unfolds in a church basement (Joe Shermoly has designed the clever set), where Margery (Janelle Snow), a still attractive woman quite lost since the recent death of her husband, has been asked by the middle-aged Pastor Greg (Eric Slater) to teach a puppetry class. The goal is to produce skits aimed at teaching children how to follow the Bible and avoid Satan. And her “students” include her nerdy, emotionally needy son, Jason; Jessica (Nina Ganet), a similarly nerdy and self-flagellating girl on whom he has a crush, and Timothy (Curtis Edward Jackson), a punkishly handsome teen who bullies Jason and everyone else, and is in a continual state of acting out and sexual aggression.
As it happens, Pastor Greg’s motives in inviting Margery to work at the church were not entirely altruistic. He is hot for Margery, though she has little desire to engage with him and makes her feelings altogether clear. As it turns out, Margery is barely suppressing her own little act of rebellion as, against all her better instincts, she aches to get her hands on Timothy, and he is more than ready to oblige.
But back to Jason and his profane, heretical alter ego, Tyrone, whose uncensored rants and racing libido(s) are not quite under control. Tyrone’s view of life is made clear in the play’s puppet show prologue as he emerges from behind a red curtain, regales us with his wildly unorthodox riff on the Genesis story, and explains the development of civilization which civilized itself by “making rules about doing bad things.” Then, of course, man devised the concept of the devil so that people could blame him for all their bad behavior. (You must be in the presence of Tyrone himself to feel the feverish ardor with which all this is presented.)
As things go from bad to worse (and Tyrone suddenly gets a set of rather sharp-edged teeth), the dysfunctional relationships between Jason and both his gluttonous, unhappy father, who died of a heart attack, and his long sexually suppressed mother, who cannot connect honestly with her son, are revealed. And Jason/Tyrone are propelled to ever more desperate violence against others (and themselves), until Pastor Greg calls for an exorcism.
If all this sounds way too over the top, well, it is, and director Gary Griffin doesn’t always find the balance between ordinary chaos and the very particular (and brilliant) chaos generated by the love-hate relationship between Jason and Tyrone.
Snow really lets its rip. Slater is quietly smarmy perfection. Jackson is a test tube of testosterone. And Ganet (also a deft puppeteer), is lovely in her simplicity in what is the most winningly real portrayal in the show. But it is Weisman (with puppet direction by Daniel Dempsey and design by Rachel Christianson) who will knock your sock puppet off your arm in what is a sensational act of concentration, coordination and total bifurcation. And it must be said: He and Ganat engage in the most hilarious act of “safe” sex (by way of puppets) you will probably ever see.