From the very start, the play Hand to God labors like hell to be shocking and irreverent, almost as if it sprung from a dramaturgical checklist on how to do so. Got enough f-bombs to make Eminem blush? Check. How about a bloody ear-biting reminiscent of Mike Tyson? Check. An explicit sex between two hand puppets? Check again.
The upshot is a two-act raunchapalooza that for all its induced “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” laughs, wears itself out long before the second-act finale.
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s loud production is very much in tune with playwright Robert Askins’ sensibility that anything goes – including one hand puppet giving the other a hand job, and that’s not just a play on words. Director Sam Woodhouse’s cast is inexhaustible. As Jason, the awkward young man whose puppet called Tyrone is possibly possessed by Old Scratch, Caleb Foote is wonderfully schizophrenic. Next most impressive and equally skilled in physical comedy is DeAnna Driscoll as Jason’s mother Margery, who’s overseeing a hand puppet ministry (these do exist) at a determinedly devout Texas church. While her character’s motives for her wildly impulsive behavior are dubiously explained as grief-driven, Driscoll has a frenzied field day onstage. She’s a Texas tornado of spat expletives and carnal desire.
But it’s hand puppet Tyrone’s show all the way, which makes this young Foote’s show. Imagine the devil-voice from “The Exorcist” mated with Andrew Dice Clay.
While the things that spew from Tyrone’s “mouth” are purposely outrageous, they are inherently more benign than if spewed by a human character. Like the animated kids on “South Park” or the marionettes in “Team America: World Police,” Tyrone’s insurgent words or antics make an impact in large part because they’re NOT coming from a real person. They might be less funny if they were.
In fact, nothing in the overdrawn Hand to God seems very real. Is that the point? Perhaps, but in any case it’s better to appreciate Hand to God as an R-rated spoof than as some Middle America-centric socio/religious observation.
Footnote: The puppet consultant for Hand to God is a San Diego legend, master puppeteer Lynne Jennings. (Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 11/1/17.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.