(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal)
If you’ve ever longed for a heady mix of repressed sexuality, barely-repressed violence, and foul-mouthed puppets, then “Hand to God” is the show for you.
Written by Robert Askins, “Hand to God” tells the story of several members of a church in Cypress, Texas, and the ways in which a possessed hand puppet turns their lives upside down. Capital T Theatre’s production of the show – running through Sept. 17 at Hyde Park Theatre – is one of the first regional performances since the play ended a successful Broadway run, and Austin is lucky to have such a top-notch rendition of this irreverent black comedy.
For a show set almost entirely inside a church, “Hand to God” does relatively little with religion, specifically.
Instead, it explores the secular lives of its characters, and their various forms of repression and expression, with the religious iconography always (literally) in the background. As such, the play is extremely accessible, even for audiences who know nothing of small-town Texas church life.
Another aspect of “Hand to God” that makes it so accessible is its uproarious humor. What starts out as a somewhat wacky idea – a Christian ministry hand puppet is possessed by a demon and/or a teenager’s angst – leads to increasingly extreme scenarios and situations with greater and greater stakes. As the intensity ratchets up, though, so does the humor, and Askins expertly mixes some of the most violently fraught scenes with some of the biggest laughs.
The blackness of Askins’ comedy is wonderfully contradicted by the gleaming bright church basement set created by director and scenic designer Mark Pickell (lit with almost fluorescently-painful authenticity by Patrick Anthony).
Pickell’s ability to turn the tiny stage at Hyde Park Theater into a cavernous space that engulfs the audience never ceases to amaze, matched only by his aptness as a director in helping his actors find ways to use that space to its utmost capacity.
Those actors all bring their A games. Theresa Baldwin and Brad Rothwell both show numerous layers to the teenagers they portray, especially given their relatively little stage time, while Capital T stalwarts Rebecca Robinson and Kenneth Wayne Bradley bring deep, often troubling complexity to the adult characters.RELATED: Capital T Theatre celebrates 10 years of edgy theater in Austin
The star of “Hand to God,” though, is Chase Brewer, who plays Jason, the boy whose troubled soul creates Tyrone, an evil, angry puppet with a thirst for sex and blood. Brewer is phenomenal in the role, appearing both vulnerable and maniacal from one second to the next as he, essentially, portrays two characters at the same time. His performance is a true tour de force, and it is his believability that brings the audience along for the show’s wild ride.
Capital T Theatre’s “Hand to God” is a first-rate production of a first-rate black comedy, with a beyond first-rate lead performance; it is not to be missed.