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.