The truth is nothing if not inconsistent. Sometimes truth comes from a place of beauty and wisdom. And sometimes it comes from an evil, ugly, little puppet. Voices Found Repertory celebrates many paths to truth this month in Robert Askins’ Hand to God. The Underground Collaborative hosts a provocative 90-minute show directed by Jessica Trznadel that tenderly fuses drama, dark comedy, psychological horror and existential weirdness. There are a few weak points shadowing the script, but Trznadel guides the show through pleasantly bewildering moments that slice through clever allegorical terrain in a coming-of-age drama the playfully dangles itself over the edge of madness on more than one occasion.
In the small, religious town of Cyprus Texas, recent widow Margery is attempting to get on with her life as best as possible. She’s involved in trying to establish a Christian puppet troupe. There are only three high school kids involved. One of them is her son...a kid who seems a bit too interested in his puppet, which seems to be developing a mind of its own.
Ramsey Schlissel treads delicately through the psyche of Margery--a woman who is suffering from great loss who is deeply flawed. Schlissel allows Margery to asset just enough inner strength to contrast against the characters somewhat crippling vulnerability. Margery’s search for perfection brushes against a lonely Pastor Greg (Jake Konrath) who harbors a romantic attraction to her. Konrath sters the pastor away from seriously self-righteous characterization that would be all too easy for anyone playing clergy in this type of show. Konrath exhibits a genuine respect for the character AND his flaws. Thomas Sebald plays Timothy--a student involved in the puppet troupe who holds an altogether less wholesome attraction for Margery. Sebald dives directly into a very immature but earnest kind of bullying persona for the often cruel Timothy.
A.J. Magoon plays the dual roles of a high school kid names Jason who has just lost hid father and the evil puppet Tyrone who seems to be controlling him. Magoon has crafted a really clever contrast between the sweet, lost, confused kid and the sinister puppet who is dominating him. Tyrone is a crude, little ugly guy, but Magoon gives the head, torso and two arms a very striking personality. There’s a great deal of subtlety in Tyrone’s body language. He’s a very distinct character and a very magnetic presence onstage. Magoon has the rare opportunity to play two characters onstage at once and he’s doing a breathtakingly believable job of doing so.
One of Tyrone’s best scenes involves fellow puppeteer Jessica (Emily Elliott) and HER puppet. Elliott imbues Jessica with a great preternatural wisdom that is tempered by the character's lack of experience. Her presence anchors the ensemble with a stable portrayal of the one character in the cast who might be the most least messed-up. Her best moment, though, has to be between herself , her puppet, Jason and Tyrone. It’s a very smart and multi-layered four-character scene in which two of the characters just happen to be puppets. Elliott and Magoon brilliantly carry off a scene that fuses serious character development against one of the funniest moments in the entire play. It’s probably one of the single most sophisticated scenes I’ve seen all season. It would be so easy to dismiss it as a cheap gag, but there’s really a hell of a lot going on there with the people and the puppets and the actors and the characters. It’s easily the high point of a very fun 90 minutes at the theatre.
Voices Found Repertory’s production of Hand To God runs through May 12th at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For more information, visit Voices Found Online.