"HAND TO GOD" USES PROFANITY TO GLEEFULLY ATTACK HYPOCRACY IN A TEXAS SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASSROOM

photo by Steve VanMeter

Tyrone (foreground) has a foul mouth and knows how to use it when he's on the arm of sweet natured Jason (Jordan Ross Siebert).

There is a hilarious plot and a damning point to be made in Arizona Onstage's brazen production of “Hand to God” by Robert Askins, but what will likely be remembered first is the rat-a-tat profanity. That and the molten sexual desire of a nerdy, red-crested sock puppet named Tyrone.

“Hand to God” is definitely R-rated, with absolutely no playful connection to those popular sock puppets of television's “Sesame Street.” In 2015 “Hand to God” was a Broadway hit, receiving a Tony nomination for best play.

Imagine a stage nudge more in the direction of Broadway's own “Avenue Q,” but there is still a long stretch to reach the assaulting attack on hypocritical Christianity which insists on upholding Puritanical ideals while, at the same time, nourishing internally the Devil's own unseemly appetites.

At the center of this emotional maelstrom directed by Kevin Johnson is the irascible Tyrone, manipulated and voiced by a very intense Jason (Jordan Ross Siebert).

Tyrone's rascally ranting is spoken by Siebert with no attempt at ventriloquism. He does use a different tone for Tyrone, but the actor is so good at this dual role business, we quickly see two separate personalities on stage – the unholy possessed sock puppet Jason always wears and the teen himself trying so hard to be a good boy.

Playing opposite Jason is his harried mom, Margery (Gretchen Wirges). She is also nourishing the Devil's own sexual desires inside herself while insisting on the surface that she is a proper widow grieving the death of her husband, a heart attack victim.

None the less, Jason's heavy metal t-shirt wearing teen friend Timothy (Brian Wolstenholme) deeply desires hot sex with Margery. In Timothy's eyes she is a true MILF (remember that movie “American Pie”).

So while Mom fends off Timothy, she is also pressured (but in a more polite way) by Pastor Greg (Steve McKee), whose smarmy manner convinces us this Man of God really wants to comfort Margery in private,

Adding more puppet love to the mix is young Jessica (Kyleigh Sacco) who genuinely cares for Jason, and also has her own sock puppet, Jolene. While most of the show belongs to Tyrone, deep into the second act Tyrone makes his own X-rated moves on a gleeful Jolene.

The clever stage design in the upstairs Cabaret Space at the downtown Temple of Music and Art also plays an essential role in “Hand to God.” We are in rural Texas in a small town church's Sunday school classroom, where encouraging slogans on the back wall are reminders of God's love. There's also a large portrait of Jesus, two kid-sized chairs and a smaller stage that is set up for a sock puppet show.

Everything here feels exactly like every church's classrooms for kids, with lots of telling details for anyone who spent years of their childhood growing up in Sunday school.

With so many memories of bright-eyed wholesomeness filling your mind, that first blast of profanity definitely gets your attention.

In the program notes, Johnson sees the importance of humor as a strong weapon to combat the evil side of Christianity. He wants Arizona Onstage Productions (which he founded in 2001) to become known for presenting shows that “are too daring to present with other companies.

“I thrive on bringing the new and exciting to our community. I live for people seeing something that they have never experienced before.”

“Hand to God” continues in the upstairs Cabaret Space at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., with three more performances: Friday, 9/16, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9/17, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 9/18, at 3 p.m. Running time is 1:45 hours, including intermission. Doors open 30 minutes before curtain.

Tickets are $27.50 general admission, $25 for seniors age 65+, $20 for students (16+) and teachers (with ID). To purchase tickets online, ArizonaOnstage.org

COVID policy encourages audience members to wear masks. The actors are not masked. The theater will be cleaned and sanitized before each performance.



















A BRUTAL ECONOMY TURNS FRIENDS INTO FOES IN THE ROGUE THEARE'S "SWEAT"

photo by Tim Fuller

From left, Jessie (Chelsea Bowdren), Tracey (Cynthia Jeffery), Stan (Matt Walley) and Cynthia (Carley Elizabeth Preston).

The powerful yet invisible forces of national economics and human nature clash on The Rogue Theatre's stage in playwright Lynn Nottage's “Sweat,” winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017.

This intense production directed by Cynthia Meier goes straight to the heart of Charles Dickens' own novels describing London's forgotten people, destroying each other in their own frustration and helplessness.

Or as Meier noted in the theater program “Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal wrote this headline: “The Play That Explains Trump's Win.”

Truly “Sweat” does exactly that. Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, during the first decade of the 21st century – when Dow Jones recorded a 617-point drop as the tech bubble burst – factory jobs were evaporating like summer mud puddles as profit-driven corporations moved their assembly lines to Mexico and other countries.

Meier wrote that Reading in those years was declared the poorest small city in the nation.

Nottage quickly puts a human face on this misery, taking us straight into the conflicts at one neighborhood bar. Through this dim atmosphere of stale beer and cigarette smoke, anyone who had a job was looked at suspiciously by the others.

At the knotty center of this emotional bind is Matt Walley as Stan, the voluble bartender who must stay friends with everyone, from the desperate faces he has known for years to the more favored ones who stay employed, counting off the time until they can retire with a pension.

In this bar, Stan becomes a Pope-like figure who must not take sides. He wants to be friends, no matter who wins. It is a brilliant performance by Walley.

Oscar (Lucas Gonzales) is the assistant bartender, who only wants to keep a low profile.

Chris (Lance Guzman) is the regular who knows he must somehow get some college education to get out of town where the real jobs are.

Hunter Hnat is the defiant, punkish rebel Jason. He refuses to play the behave-yourself game even though he has no job and no future.

Bruce (Steve Waite) lost the defiance game years ago. His wasted life represents the future that's waiting for the others.

Both sad and successful are the three female friends: Cynthia (Carley Elizabeth Preston), Tracey (Cynthia Jeffrey) and Jessie (Chelsea Bowdren).

Cynthia not only has a job but gets a promotion into management, earning suspicion and hatred from her lifetime friends. Tracey is the strong one who wants to take a stand for fairness. Jessie, much like Oscar, just wants to get along.

Evan (Victor Bowleg) completes the cast as a government official.

There are no heroes, no blue collar commanders to save the day. The big bosses who run the company are never seen, but they aren't evil – exactly. They are only trying to survive, too.

Just like the meat grinder which can't be blamed for grinding up the meat. It was only doing what it was designed to do.

In a town like Tucson, “Sweat” plays with a particular poignancy. We know these people. We are these people. There will be plenty to ponder while driving home from The Rogue Theatre.

“Sweat” continues through Sept. 25 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, plus 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays-Sundays, in The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. The run time is 2:20, including intermission. For details, www.theroguetheatre.org

Tickets are $42 general admission. All tickets must be purchased in advance. When available, $15 student rush tickets go on sale 15 minutes before curtain.

COVID policy requires audience members to be masked. The actors are not masked.