Hand to God at Wolf Pack Theatre Company

TheatreBloom rating:

There are certain works that, for all of their other merits, really demand to be seen for one specific scene. Fans of obscure cinema know this well. In an age where sharing spoilers was not a capital offense, amateur critics would often open reviews by describing these climactic scenes in exhaustive detail, and readers were not deterred. Rather than complaining that the work had been ruined for them, they signed into their eBay accounts and searched for used VHS copies of the films in question because it was incredibly important that, despite already knowing the particulars of those paramount components, they needed to appreciate those scenes in context. For those viewers, it is insufficient to view those singular sequences in isolation: one needs to understand the events that precipitated it, the characters involved and the impact it has on them, its function within the overall narrative.

Kelsey Yudice as Jessica and Gabe Zak as Jason in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda
Rachel Zirkin Duda Kelsey Yudice as Jessica and Gabe Zak as Jason in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda

In any case, we do live at a time when — perhaps like the puppet Tyrone in Robert Askins’s Hand to God — spoilers are the devil, so I will refrain from describing the scene that necessitates seeing this play. The particular production I saw, directed by William Leary and performed by the Wolf Pack Theater Company, does boast a great many strengths (and deliberate horrors) beyond the money shot: read on for more about those elements. Still, know going into the show that you will leave with one spectacular scene impressed upon your mind. A friend who saw another production of Hand to God described it as “incredible”; immediately after viewing this one I questioned whether I would use that term to describe what I just saw. Upon further reflection — and especially with reference to that one scene — I admit that “incredible” is absolutely the right word to describe what I witnessed.

Such an unforgettable show would arguably warrant a viewing regardless of the quality of the cast, but the Wolf Pack players ably fulfill the demands of the script. Though the adult characters are perhaps written less well than the teenagers — in that their motivations make less sense (despite the script’s attempts to justify them) and they seem to neither suffer nor properly appreciate the notion of consequences for their actions — Sharon Eddy and Paul M. Davis demonstrate admirable commitment to their roles as Margery and Pastor Greg. Jamie Brill’s Timothy, the resident bad seed, is somewhat more accessible, if only because most of us can recall having been teenagers at one point. (No one who has never been a teenager should be allowed to see this show.) With Timothy’s foul mouth and confrontational attitude, I disliked the character at once — which might sound like a criticism but rather speaks to Brill’s successful realization of the character. That said, I did smile at the character’s correct response to the question “Who you gonna call?” (It ain’t Roto-Rooter.)

But it is Gabe Zak who gives the standout performance as both Jason, the story’s teenage protagonist, and the malevolent puppet Tyrone. As the role requires Zak to switch between both characters — as well as “host” Tyrone with one arm while manipulating the puppet’s arms with the unoccupied hand — the challenge is apparent, and yet Zak’s skillful puppeteering and voice differentiation between the two characters effectively imbues each with a distinct personality: we can empathize with Jason even as we fear the hellish entity on his arm. Kelsey Yudice’s puppetry also warrants special kudos. True, Yudice’s Jessica largely remains in control of her own limbs, and Yudice consistently imbues Jessica with an appealing wholesomeness that is largely lacking among the other characters. But the scene where her puppet Jolene takes center stage — spoilers! — is itself worth the price of admission.

Paul M. Davis as Pastor Greg and Sharon Eddy as Margery in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda.
Rachel Zirkin Duda Paul M. Davis as Pastor Greg and Sharon Eddy as Margery in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda.

And speaking of those puppets, Kylie Clark has really outdone herself with their design. These are some great looking puppets! During the course of the play, Tyrone has an accident in which he is destroyed and cast off, and when he later returns… whoa. Never have I seen a grodier-looking puppet than the resurrected Tyrone — and that scarred, stained, strung-out looking thing that reemerges from the refuse isn’t even his final form. Jolene, too, is very well made. Again, current sensibilities leave me hesitant to say more, but a detail from early in the play should be sufficient foreshadowing: the puppet requires “extra stuffing.”

The set design, also handled by director Leary, is decidedly appealing and apropos. The scenes largely take place in the activity room of a church, and the furniture on stage definitely gives the set a community center vibe. This was perhaps easily accomplished — the venue is a community center, after all, and I imagine it was a simple feat to borrow furniture from the adjoining rooms for the production. But the excellent Jesus mural painted on the rear wall (credit to Muralist McKenna Gervase Kelly; it’s a shame that the audience can’t appreciate the mural in isolation) and religious signage place those community rooms squarely in a church setting. Moreover, as the play progresses and darker events happen, the background changes — the mural is covered with curses; a puppet is bound and hanged — to reflect the corruption in the characters’ midst. Other scenes are accomplished by drawing a curtain mid-stage and moving the action forward, which works well enough. One early scene even takes place in a sort of alcove to the left of the stage, which I found interesting, as it redirects the audience’s attention and gives the impression of these events really playing out in a larger setting. Unfortunately this only happens the once, so in a way makes it feel like a missed opportunity to utilize that approach to greater effect, but it also makes that particular scene stand out even more — which, given its importance in the narrative, is perhaps what Leary intended.

Stephen Beitzel’s technical direction and special effects also capably complement the action onstage. I was charmed by the old-school nature of a driving bit, where a spotlight focuses on the driver and passenger as the former pantomimes manipulating a steering wheel — it was exceedingly minimal, and yet between the acting and the sound (with the rumbling of the road, the car stereo playing quietly, and the sound of the car door opening and closing) it was entirely apparent what was supposed to be happening. In another scene, however, Tyrone invokes his dark power: whereupon intense red strobe lights and even a bit of pyrotechnics are employed. So there may be some inconsistency when it comes to the production values on display, but the effects always succeed in conveying their import without confusing the audience.

Jamie Brill as Timothy and Kelsey Yudice as Jessica in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda.
Rachel Zirkin Duda Jamie Brill as Timothy and Kelsey Yudice as Jessica in Hand to God. Photo: Rachel Zirkin Duda.

Finally, as much as the show is concerned with exploring right and wrong actions, it is worth noting that seeing this show perhaps counts as a notch in the former column: proceeds from the show will go toward supporting Community Crisis Services initiatives. You may primarily be sitting in the audience to marvel at one incredible scene — even as you appreciate the considerable work that bookends that moment — but you can leave knowing that your sojourn in a place of selfish adults and struggling teenagers and possessed puppets may help to reduce the suffering of individuals in the real world. I remain glad, however, that the character Jason was unable to avail himself of similar services! Had he done so, we might have been deprived of the climactic exchange that makes Hand to God required viewing.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes with one intermission

Hand to God plays through July 20, 2019 with Wolfpack Theatre Company at the Taylor Street Theater— 3601 Taylor Street in Brentwood, MD. Tickets are available at the door or in advance online.

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