Tuesday, May 15, 2018

God blessed us with a great puppeteer in “Hand to God” at SPT

Hand to God (John Ulman)
Hand to God
Seattle Public Theater
Through June 3, 2018

For most people, puppet shows are mostly for kids, these days, though if one takes a turn through theater history, puppets have been used for thousands of years to augment stories and are celebrated art forms in many cultures.

In Seattle, a handful of folks have steeped themselves in puppetry in a variety of forms. Three that come to mind cross the gambit of puppetry formats. Brian Kooser has created some enormous puppets in shows, though he hasn’t created his own production in quite awhile. Scot Augustson uses shadow puppetry almost exclusively in his subversive political-social commentary plays. Jean Enticknap uses Bunraku puppets (with Kooser’s help) for her children’s Thistle Theatre. Ben Burris, a young performer who worked with Thistle for years, has graduated to making his own puppets and is now starring in Robert Askins’ Hand to God at Seattle Public Theater.

Burris has decamped to Los Angeles in the way of young actors seeking more fame and fortune and … acting, one supposes, but has returned here for a showing of his incredible mastery of this particular art. My personal impression of the focus of this very odd, funny, intense play is that the subject of the play is really “the mother,” but Burris’ ability to manage the subtleties of acting with a hand puppet – that really does seem to become The Devil while attached to a generally mild-mannered teenage boy – is a major blessing.
Burris’ years of dedication to puppetry have given us the treat of seeing this play done with the expertise of far more than 4 or 6 weeks of rehearsal. It’s unlikely that any actor, anywhere, could give a better performance. It’s riveting just to watch him.

So, what is this wacky, dark comedy about? Jason (Burris) and his mom Margery (Sunam Ellis) recently lost his dad and her husband, six months earlier. In their small Texas town, Pastor Greg (Marty Krouse) has helped Margery by setting her up with a puppetry ‘ministry’ of sorts with her son and a couple of teenagers, Jessica (Hannah Mootz) and Timmy (Arjun Pande). Jason, though, seems to have taken a bit too deeply to puppetry, and his puppet, Tyrone, has begun speaking for Jason a bit more forcefully than timid Jason can speak for himself.

As Tyrone demonstrates more and more power, we’re supposed to wonder if he’s really the Devil and if Jason is “possessed,” but really, more strange activities start happening than Jason is directly involved in. In fact, Margery is coming to her own breaking point and her own “devil” is possessing her, too.

Ellis gives one of the funniest, most varied performances she’s ever had to pull off, and her sly enjoyment and 150% commitment to the role is also a great hoot to watch. Margery’s journey is tricky because her character could become unlikable, but Ellis stays on the likable side of the line, and even understandable, as far as the kind of emotions that would drive her to do what she does.

Mootz, Pande, and Krouse are all solid supportive foils for these two. Krouse’s almost-but-not-quite-creepy Pastor could really be played badly, but Krouse is also able to walk that line beautifully and keep him likable.

Director Kelly Kitchens keeps the pacing fast and furious, with an inventively destructive set by Christopher Mumaw that credibly gets torn apart, but apparently easily put back together, too. Rob Witmer’s sound design provides entertaining set change music as well as great effects when needed.

This is not a kid’s show! You should emphatically NOT bring smaller children to this show. There are adult sexual situations and lots of swear words. Think Avenue Q, only way worse!

But it’s great fun, and actually a lot more intense and unfunny in some ways than you’d think. That statement does not mean I think the comedy fails! It is augmented by a more intense reality that lets the comedy subside from time to time. And that is very interesting.

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