The promotional photo for Hand to God—a simple, goofy-looking puppet, wearing a halo—doesn’t give Lyndale Avenue passersby much of a clue about the nature of the ribald and iconoclastic play now on stage inside the Jungle Theater. In fairness, it would be tough to reveal much more without spoiling the plot developments that make this show such a wild ride.
The Jungle does make clear, with a giant PARENTAL ADVISORY EXPLICIT CONTENT warning on its website, that this isn’t the kind of puppet show you should bring kids to. It was probably inevitable that Avenue Q would be outdone in the annals of adult puppetry, and theatergoers have been similarly enthralled by Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated 2011 script, which was America’s most-produced play (aside from Shakespeare and holiday shows) in the 2016-17 season.
The play opens in a Texas church basement so faithfully rendered by scenic and puppet designer Chelsea M. Warren, it seems almost redundant given the plentitude of similar settings that abound in Minnesota. This basement holds surprises, though, and among them are the confrontational words spewed by Tyrone, a puppet on the arm of a mild-mannered teen named Jason (Riley O’Toole).
Jason’s recently widowed mother, Margery (a perfectly cast Tracey Maloney), has been recruited by Pastor Greg (Kris Nelson) to lead a puppetry class that she cares about only marginally more than her young participants do. The only two students she has, besides Jason, are bad boy Timothy (Eric Sharp) and the justifiably appalled Jessica (C. Michael Menge).
In what one character calls a “Dr. Jekyll and Miss Piggy” act, Tyrone gives voice to the anger and frustration that’s been seething in Jason since his father died. While Hand to God isn’t exactly a profound meditation on grief and faith, those are thematic threads that Askins manages to hang on to during a raucous series of events that take these characters down some very dark paths.
Hand to God is yet another reason to applaud (take the sock off your hand first) artistic director Sarah Rasmussen’s knack for corralling superb recent scripts and matching them with top local talent. In this case, director Christina Baldwin embraces Askins’ snappy pace and snarling tone, with an ace cast led by the remarkable O’Toole. The fact that Maloney and Nelson are real-life spouses adds to the production’s frisson.
With its fruitless physical violence, fragile male egos, and touches of magical realism in the faith-parched American west, Hand to God suggests a gonzo Sam Shepard. It’s a cathartically angry play. From the onstage talent to Warren and the rest of the design team, the Jungle’s unblinking production brings Askins’ subversive comic vision vividly to life.
Hand to God
2951 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis
Through August 19; 612-822-7063