Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Who's on First

Industry is in the eye of the beholder.

Sure, technically I'm not an actor or director and I don't design costumes, sound or light, but that didn't stop me from getting tickets for "Hand to God" at the Basement on Industry night. If anything, I chose this stormy Tuesday evening to see a co-production by TheatreLab and 5th Wall partly because I knew I'd see so many familiar stage faces in the audience.

And in my usual Luddite manner, I went to the see the 2015 Tony award-nominated best new play with absolutely no clue what it was about, nor any sense of how lewdly and furiously funny a dark comedy that includes puppet orgasms could be. Because, really, being a heathen and all, how could I not be sucked in by a play about a demonic puppet at a Lutheran bible school in Texas?

My J-boy and I walked over in a steady rain under a large umbrella, only to be told by artistic director Deejay Gray that he couldn't guarantee that the Basement wouldn't flood during tonight's performance because, "Well, it's a basement."

That's truth talk right there because I'd arrived home from Norfolk just as the second round of thunderstorms hit Jackson Ward and my basement was already under a couple inches of water. Still is.

From the front row, we had such an up close and personal view of the stage - set up to look like a church basement - that I didn't even need my glasses for most of it. Now that's proximity.

Looking at the set before the play began, I focused on the centerpiece of it, a puppet stage labeled "Christcateers," wondering what Jesus and sock puppets could possibly have in common. Meanwhile, the non-Christian next to me commented that the set confirmed every scary thought he'd ever had about church basements, although he guessed it was Catholic and I knew with certainty that it was Protestants of some sort.

I happen to know that Catholic church basements are a different kind of crazy.

And now I've learned that some crazy Protestants actually do use puppets as part of their Christian ministry, which only adds to a friend's religious dating theory (something about avoiding Protestant men because passion isn't their strong suit), and further solidifies my place in the heathen world.

"Hand to God" was riveting from the opening prologue of a green puppet sharing his thoughts on how mankind went from "rutting as we chose, careless in the night" to making rules about doing bad things, which included inventing the concept of the devil.

As a card-carrying heathen, I don't have to worry about that.

The entire cast was strong, none more so than Adam Turck as shy, insecure Jason, the unfortunate teen with Tyrone, the puppet, on his hand, who loudly and stridently voiced the evil puppet by biting off syllables, popping his every "p" and "t" and terrifying everyone around him. What fascinated me was that even though he mouthed Tyrone's words with no attempt to conceal where it was coming from, my eyes were glued to how convincing that puppet was every time he spoke.

That's right, I could have been looking at the actor dramatically saying Tyrone's lines but instead couldn't tear myself from watching a green sock with red hair inches from his face. This really wasn't your Sesame Street kind of puppet, though it was some top notch puppeteering.

What made a play about a demonic puppet so continuously laugh-out-loud funny was the dead serious nature of the topics covered in the story: sexual repression ("I don't want to be good anymore") and religious hypocrisy (a minister talking about his "needs" to a grieving widow), alcoholism and death, depression and repression.

But where it truly resonated was in its peek into the divided soul of Everyman, with its constant battle between good and evil. You don't even have to be a crazy Christian to know what I'm talking about.

Every member of the five person cast shone, from the confused and horny Margery assuredly and hilariously played by Kimberly Jones, to the surprisingly sexual confidence of quiet Jessica as portrayed by Anne Michelle Forbes. Adam Valentine, whose work I'd admired in "Heathers the Musical," again grabbed my attention playing the sullen Timothy with bravado, sardonic humor and in one scene, in his underwear. Fred Iacovo managed to transition from a skeevy minister hitting on Margery to the only one strong enough to stand up to the bastard puppet, no easy shift.

Which is all a long, rambling way of saying that I can't imagine a darker or more clever take on raw family dysfunction and religious hypocrisy, much less one where I was doubled over laughing so much.

As for all the screaming sex scenes - puppets as well as humans - well, bras coming off and skirts being pushed up were just icing on the industry night cake.

Damn, Richmond, your theater game is stellar.

No comments:

Post a Comment