Think puppets. On stage. Perhaps the first show that comes to mind is Avenue Q, for a very good reason. It’s certainly the most celebrated and successful one, so why not? After all, it’s the musical that subverted the cute “Muppet” iconography and had puppets sing songs like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “The Internet Is For Porn.” It proved that Muppet-like puppetry can be (most definitely) for adults.
Playwright Robert Askins, in his 2011 play Hand to God, now playing at Paramount Aurora’s new Copley Theatre, apparently wished to up the ante. This is a non-musical, very adult Avenue Q on steroids. It isn’t in any way an adorable little puppet play: this is what happens when you cross Avenue Q with something by David Cronenberg. It’s The Hellmuppets. And it is absolutely brilliant.
August Foreman, who seems to be giving one extraordinary performance after another these days, plays Jason, a troubled teenager missing his dead father, who is encouraged by his (also-troubled) mother to join a puppet-making group she is running in their church. There, he creates a bright orange puppet he calls Tyrone that resembles a shag carpet-covered Animal from Dr. Teeth’s band on a really, really bad day. When he starts playing with it, though, he quickly learns that it seems to have a mind of its own…and that mind is evil and, quite possibly, Satanic.
Foreman adopts a gruff, dark voice for Tyrone while shifting his entire physicality as well, and if he slips a few times during the rapid-fire exchanges between Jason and Tyrone, well, it’s completely understandable. This is an exhausting, meticulously-crafted portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder (or maybe demonic possession) through the proxy of a puppet, and Foreman differentiates his innocent teen and violent, twisted puppet characters so well that it is difficult to tell if the boy is breaking down or if he—or the puppet—is truly possessed.
As Jason’s heartbroken, depressed mother Margery, Monica West brings very sincere pathos into the play. Trying to help her son, whose own depression has caused his grades to tank, as well as to dodge come-ons from one of the teens in her class (Jordan Moore’s Timmy) as well as the church pastor (Adam Wesley Brown walking a tightrope between sleazy and sincere…and occasionally falling off), Margery realizes that, much like Jason, she is losing touch with her Self.
Much of that is due to Moore’s Timmy, who is all teenage machismo, a boy who is good-looking and knows it and honestly believes that a mature woman could and should be interested in him. He prods and wheedles until he finds passage through Margery’s armor, causing the Christian mother to break down and accept his indecent proposal. To Askins’ credit, though, it is clear to all from the start that their brief fling is her fault: she is, after all, the ostensibly adult party here. (Brown’s pastor, who has been inappropriate himself, is so shocked when he discovers it that he is momentarily unable to react.) Moore is able to show Timmy’s vulnerability despite his too-young sexual power trip, and when he suffers consequences for what has happened, Timmy breaks down like the teenage boy that he is. (As for Margery, it’s clear that as soon as it is over she recognizes her own culpability. No blaming the victim here.)
The fifth character is the extremely likable Jessica (Felicia Oduh), the one teen in the puppet group who sincerely wants to be there. From the outset, it is clear that she has feelings for Jason (and vice-versa), but they have been too shy to act on them. (Tyrone wants to have some say in that.) When things in the church classroom begin to go all paranormal, Jessica is frightened but remains determined to help Jason find his way back from the brink if she can. Oduh, a 2020 Northwestern graduate, manages to be at once childlike and almost preternaturally mature. When Jessica is with Jason, the prevailing mood is a hopeful calm very, very different from the chaos whirling about him when he is by himself with Tyrone.
Director Trent Stork’s clear vision keeps all of this from devolving from a staged nightmare to a stage one. Their pacing, from scene to scene, is determined by what is happening, but there is never a doubt that, even with this possibly Satanic puppet about, someone has a handle on everything. When Jason succumbs to the puppet’s manic (maniac?) prodding and violently tears the classroom apart, it’s so well-choreographed that I believe if I went there a second night I’d see it happen in exactly the same way. When there are quieter scenes, they give them plenty of room to develop and breathe. And they use Intimacy Director Jyreica Guest—someone who seems to be everywhere!—to make every scene feel honest and safe for the performers.
Stork has a lot to do, but then again they have a lot to work with. This is a show whose design crew ought to be called back every night for a bow, or maybe canonized. Costume Designer Yvonne L. Miranda has designed some outstanding puppets. Jonathan Berg-Einhorn’s set seems simple but it is full of quirky surprises, not the least of which is its ability to act as a screen for Paul Deziel’s exciting projections. Cat Wilson’s lighting manages to turn a Sunday School classroom into a hellscape. Sound Designer Jeffrey Levin provides both small, precise effects (an approaching car, for example) and wall-to-wall metal music for the most insane moments. Jon Beal makes the fights (and the gore) work…well, I was going to write “beautifully,” but that’s not really—you know what I mean. For all of the many bespoke properties designed by Aimee Plant, she deserves a real shout-out, as does Spencer Lott, who coached the actors in the use of the puppets. And I don’t usually mention the Stage Manager, but Sara Gammage has to get kudos for keeping this complicated ark afloat every night.
I saw this show with my 27-year-old daughter, whose lifelong love of horror and quirky things manifests itself on her vanity license plate that calls out both zombies and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When it was over, she turned to me and commented, “You know me well.” Yes, I do. And I also know that Hand to God, in this crazy, bloody, and absolutely wonderful production, is something you just have to see.
Hand to God is part of Paramount Theatre of Aurora’s BOLD series, and is playing across the street from the main stage at the Copley Theatre. Tickets are available at the Paramount website. It plays through July 10.