The standard trappings of amateur puppetry (colorful felt, googly eyes, repurposed socks, etc.) are abundantly present at Wolf Pack Theatre Company’s rendition of “Hand to God.” But Sesame Street seems worlds away from the irreverent dramedy, where humanity’s basest urges are brought out into the open by a foul-mouthed, possessed puppet named Tyrone.
With a standout performance from Gabe Zak, director William Leary has delivered a crude-humor-filled production about learning what it means to cope.
“Hand to God” premiered Off-Broadway in 2011 and returned for a critically acclaimed Broadway run in 2015, which garnered five Tony nominations. The play unfolds against the backdrop of southern Christianity, taking place almost entirely within the sickly-sweet basement of a Lutheran Church. In the small Taylor Street Theater, the linoleum floor and religious posters are incredibly immediate, bringing the disturbing events almost right into the audience’s lap.
As the lights come up, we meet Jason, a soft-spoken, shy teenager, through the lens of his growling sock puppet Tyrone, aggressive and unhinged as he rants about the creation of the Devil. Gabe Zak deftly portrays both Jason and Tyrone, and though his lips move with the puppet’s, they are clearly two separate individuals. Jason has recently lost his father, and his pain, guilt, and anger fracture into Tyrone’s uncontrollable explosions at his mother (an overbearing Sharon Eddy) and lewd propositions toward his kindhearted friend Jessica (Kelsey Yudice). Eddy’s Margaery also undergoes internal conflict, her Southern twang always notable as she lets go of her Christian morals to engage in a sexual relationship with teenage bully Timothy (Jamie Brill).
Though the show is filled with raunchy comedy intended to shock (audiences will not soon forget a particular puppet sex scene), there is an undertone of seriousness as the characters deal with grief, insecurity, and loneliness. Zak’s Jason lashes out in a truly terrifying way, despite the incongruity between puppetry and true evil. With expertly designed puppets and demonically red lighting, Tyrone becomes a threat as real as any physical danger. As the church’s pastor, Paul M. Davis is at first a source of stability, though his kindness is peeled back to reveal layers of sexual frustration and desperate exploitation. Each actor’s performance demonstrates how their character is a victim.
The exploration of Jason’s deteriorating mental health is inspired and augmented by Wolf Pack Theatre Company’s partnership with Community Crisis Services, a local organization dedicated to assisting those in the area with mental health and social services. With a portion of proceeds going to the organization, “Hand to God” feels more universal than its setting.
Dedicated to make a difference, “Hand to God” is an adult comedy not for the faint of heart. With a standout performance from Gabe Zak, director William Leary has delivered a crude-humor-filled production about learning what it means to cope.
Advisory: Adult themes and language, pyrotechnics. Recommended for ages 17 and up.
Running Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.
“Hand to God” runs through July 20th at the Taylor Street Theater, 3601 Taylor St, Brentwood, MD 20722. Purchase tickets online here.