Robert Askins’ “Hand To God” is one of the most shockingly hilarious plays I have seen in many a year.
Set in a church basement, the play involves a teacher (Melissa Penick), a pastor (Michael Thibeault) and three teenage students (Maggie Papa, Andrew Iacovelli and Brian Kozak) preparing for a “puppet ministry” performance at Sunday’s church service.
We first meet Jason (Kozak) as he presents a gripping opening monologue that tells you a bit about the troubled youth. The meek and frustrated Jason has an evil alter ego, Tyrone, a hand puppet attached to his arm, that allows him to vent his anger. Jason has serious problems dealing with himself and others. Jessica is sympathetic toward him, but Timothy intimidates him at every turn. Hand puppet Tyrone is blunt, cruel, embarrassing to Jason, but basically honest. He brings out the worst in Jason, while taunting the others to the point of violence.
Margery is not only Jason’s teacher, she is his widowed mother who has her own problems. Seduced by student Timothy and the horny pastor, she reaches her breaking point and finds herself unable to control her emotions.
While the play is very dark to the point of being tragic, it is also very funny, forcing us to laugh and feel guilty for doing so.
Brian Kozak gives one of the best performances we have seen on stage this year. Fighting his own confused emotions while losing control of his extended left arm, he convinces us that there is a Jason inside all of us, if not a puppet on our arms.
The puppets were created by Roger Lemelin. The play was sharply directed by Kate Kataja, running for 90 minutes with a brief intermission. It runs through December 8 at Burbage’s new home at 80 Blackstone Ave. in Pawtucket. For tickets, go online at www.burbagetheatre.org.