Cypress, Texas. Recently widowed Margery (Alison Whyte) seeks solace in her local Church – overseen by goofy and gormless Pastor Greg (Grant Piro) – and in its amateur puppetry group. Her players are bad-body Timothy (Jake Speer), self-conscious Jessica (Morgana O’Rielly), and her son, Jason (Gyton Grantley). Jason just wants to make his mother happy and be a good boy. Maybe he’s found his place with puppetry, performing old vaudeville routines with “Tyrone” to impress Jessica, with whom he is besotted, though far too shy to say. Tyrone, however, is not.
And that’s where things go off the rails.
Many draw comparisons between Hand To God and productions like Avenue Q; it would be fairer to say that it is to Avenue Q what Avenue Q is to Sesame Street, mixed with The Exorcist, and elements of Reefer Madness (the 2005 film). You’d be excused – with all the violence and language – for thinking the Quentin Tarantino was directing. The juxtaposition of this extreme adult content with the innocuousness of sock puppets creates a confronting yet hilarious piece, leaving audiences squirming in their seat from discomfort and laughter. It’s hardly surprising it was a smash hit on Broadway, receiving five Tony Award nominations.
Both Margery and Jason are fascinating studies in our quite frequent inability to deal with emotions. Margery is clearly unable to find peace after her husband’s death, and is doubling down on her faith in the hopes that by “being good” she’ll be rewarded, or even just feel better. Pastor Greg (who clearly cares for her more than his Pastoral duties would demand) encourages her to confront her emotions and move on (this is quite literally expressed in the deadline he sets for her to produce a play), but when she does, it is during a serious crisis of faith, and in utterly the wrong way.
Similarly, Jason struggles to find a healthy way to express his emotions, and sees in Tyrone an outlet; like the invisible friend many children have who they blame all their naughtiness on, or, as the opening monologue presents, “the devil [who] made me do it”, here is somewhat who can say and do whatever he wants, damn the consequences, while Jason must be a “good boy”. The resolution comes when Jason realises that sometimes it’s okay to be angry, but that you can’t be consumed by it, as Tyrone so wishes he would, in the balance between being “good” and “bad”, rather than segregating them.
Gyton Grantley gives a phenomenal performance, bouncing back-and-forth between the simple, well meaning Jason and the manic, evil Tyrone. You can see the sweat dripping from his brow as he energetically hurls himself into each role, alternating at breakneck speed. Margery’s breakdown is a pivotal moment for Alison Whyte, as the façade drops and she becomes an entirely different person altogether. Indeed, by the end, in many ways every character undergoes a metamorphosis; Pastor Greg is not just the goof he appears, Timothy is not as tough, and Jessica not quite as innocent as you may have thought.
Confronting, shocking, and side-splitting funny, Hand To God explores some of the frailties, failings, but also strengths of human nature, in a sometimes perverse morality play that must be seen to be believed.
Hand to God is on at Alex Theatre St Kilda from 22 February until 18 March. For show times, tickets and accessibility information (including Aslan interpretation), head to the Alex Theatre St Kilda website.