I have a thing for puppets. This fascination began in elementary school, when I became obsessed with a VHS copy of Muppets from Space (Great movie, or greatest movie ever?) This obsession morphed into an idolization of Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. I do not know why, but there is something totally magical for me about watching a person imbue an inanimate object with life. Though opportunities to enjoy puppets as an adult are few and far between, there are two plays in Champaign-Urbana in the coming months that incorporate puppetry. One is Failure: A Love Story, at the Krannert Center from February 2-February 12. The other is Hand to God, currently at the Station Theater until February 4.
Hand to God centers around a Puppet Ministry in the small town of Cypress, Texas. Margery has been asked to run the puppet club by her minister, Pastor Greg, as a way to keep occupied after the recent death of her husband. In attendance are three teenagers, including Margery’s timid son Jeremy, a troubled kid named Timothy with an alcoholic mother, and the sweet and sarcastic Jessica. All of the characters except Jessica are sexually frustrated. Pastor Greg has the hots for Margery, while Margery and Timothy are on the verge of an illicit affair. Jeremy is uncomfortable with his growing attraction to Jessica.
The godly teachings of the Puppet Ministry just aren’t doing the trick to help this malcontent and maladaptive group deal with their urges, and all hell breaks loose (literally and figuratively) when Jeremy’s hand puppet, Tyrone, becomes possessed by an unfiltered and aggressive version of Satan himself. An opening monologue by Tyrone introduces themes of individual vs. collective, id vs. super-ego, and morality vs. animal instinct. The play is in part about how the characters navigate, mostly unsuccessfully, between these seeming polarities.
Hand to God is not for the faint of heart. Hilarious, violent, and incredibly raunchy, the action of the play takes place in the short course of a week as Margery attempts to prepare for a Sunday performance by the puppet club. The performance never happens, however, as Tyrone is introduced and the interactions between the characters careen wildly off track. Because of rapid tonal shifts between and within scenes, I found myself laughing and wincing in equal measure. I thought that Margery (Jessica Stelzer) and Pastor Greg (Kevin Paul Wickart) felt a little flat, especially in comparison to Evan Seggebruch’s performance as Jason/Tyrone. He and Kimmy Schofield, who played Jessica, both brought their puppets to life with incredible skill. In one of my favorite scenes, Jason attempts to impress Jessica with a performance of “Who’s on First” using Tyrone. This is when Tyrone first splits off from Jason as a character, aggressively coming onto Jessica and horrifying Jason.
But some of the most vulnerable moments in the play are when elements of Jason’s personality come through in Tyrone’s performance. And while Tyrone is physically violent, some of the most disturbing and psychologically violent scenes center on Margery. There are two fairly explicit sex scenes in this play. One of them is between Margery and Timothy, and one of them is a good three minutes of puppet sex between Tyrone and Jessica’s puppet. Wildly enough, I found this to be one of the tenderest scenes: Jeremy is able to heal the rift between himself and Tyrone by talking through his impulses towards Jessica while Tyrone is distracted. In the scene between Margery and Timothy, Timothy baits Margery until she gives into her desires, after which she orders him to destroy the puppet club room by shredding religious posters and throwing furniture. The two scenes mirror each other, with Margery’s inability to take responsibility for her own aggression and lust highlighting Jeremy’s struggle to break free from the patterns that most likely defined her relationship with his late father.
Hand to God is a great play. I would go see it if I were you, even if you aren’t crazy about puppets (and especially if you are). After you see it, you can watch this illuminating interview with Robert Askins and Steven Boyer, the actor who played Jason/Tyrone for the duration of the play’s run on Broadway. Playwright Robert Askins grew up Cyprus, Texas, where his mother taught a puppet class in the basement of St. John Lutheran church.
Hand to God will be playing at the Station Theatre from January 19th-February 4th with 8 PM performances from Thursday-Sunday as well as on Wednesday, January 25th and Wednesday, February 1st. Tickets are $10 for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday performances and $15 for Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations can be made at the Station Theatre website or by calling 217-384-4000.
All images by Scott Wells…
Scott is a U.S. Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Illinois. He has been a photographer and writer for Smile Politely since March of 2015.