GUEST REVIEW: Kathleen Coudle King Ponders The Meaning Of Life & Puppets At ETC’s HAND TO GOD

Published on January 28, 2018 by   ·   1 Comment

While I’m sure that you’ve been enjoying my theatrical adventures around Seattle on my many work trips (sometimes I feel like I live there!), I’m also sure that you’ve noticed that I’ve been slacking a little bit on reviewing shows and productions closer to home.  I’ve noticed it too, and I’ve made it one of my New Year’s resolutions to step up the coverage on local theatre once again, and one way to do that is by calling in reinforcements: enter the Champagne Squad!  I’ve been soliciting local theatre aficionados to lend us their thoughts on the productions that I either can’t get to or don’t have time to review.  You probably noticed the first one when Jeff McMahon gave us his thoughts on the ETC’s production of Heathers, and now we’re back at it with a review of ETC’s newest production, Hand to God.  Our guest reviewer this time is none other than Kathleen Coudle King, Executive Director of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre.  In addition to her work overseeing GGFCT, she is also a playwright and director, and even makes an acting cameo here and there; this play is an especially good fit for her as it involves puppets and one of her big projects over the last year has been to bring historical stories and characters to the Grand Cities area through a traveling puppet show.  Enjoy her thoughts on this latest production, and look for more “action” in the Local Arts & Theatre section to come! XOXO – Miss Jaye

Hand to God 02Hand to God by Robert Askins opened tonight at the Empire Theatre in downtown Grand Forks.  Let’s begin by saying that it is clear the Empire artistic staff has an unhealthy view of puppets. What, did Elmo pee in their Cheerios? They might want to see a therapist for that.  It began with Avenue Q several summers ago, and now here’s Hand to God, which does nothing to destigmatize puppets, and in fact will increase the discrimination puppets are faced with on a daily basis.  Puppets are people, too, Chris Berg!  Puppets are people — oh. Right.

Hand To God 01Hand to God, superbly directed by Chris Berg (no friend to the puppet), revolves around a fledgling puppetry group for youth consisting of 3 teenagers, Jason (Casey Hennessey), Jessica (Abigail Plumley), and Timothy (Harsha Praveen), led by Margery (Nicole Quam).  Margery is Jason’s mother, and six-months ago her husband (and Jason’s father) died of a heart attack.  Pastor Greg (Darin Kerr) completes the cast.

The stage is set with a simple, wooden puppet stage, the kind with a center window with red cloth curtains pulled back, and a rainbow striped wall on either side holding it upright.  There are “churchy” posters on the wall about forgiveness and love and truth, and a desk and book shelf pretty much complete the set.  The lighting by Spencer Carmichael is simple, making good use of reds from time to time.  Music bridges scene changes and begins with Madonna’s “Holiday” and progresses to Marilyn Manson, then back to pop at the end.

Tyrone, Jason’s hand puppet, opens the show with a monologue about the need for “devils,” someone we can blame our sins on – as in “the devil made me do it.”  This simple cloth puppet could use a nice bar of soap in his mouth.  His speech is peppered with epithets, underscoring the need for a “devil,” someone/thing that can speak our truths, no matter how vile or vulgar, when we feel we cannot for fear of reprisal, rejection, retribution.

After this set up, the lights shift and we enter the basement room of the church, where the puppet workshop is in progress.  Poor Marjorie is at her wits’ end with the teens who all sulk in that maddening way teens do.  Timothy is the “bad kid,” mouthy, a bully, and doesn’t want anything to do with the puppets.  (So, why is here there?  That question will soon be answered.)

Then there’s Jessica who is still building her puppet, admonished by Marjorie for using so much stuffing.

Hand to God 03Finally, there’s Jason, who has a crush on Jessica, which is obvious to Timmy who teases him about it. Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, hangs on his hand, and when his mother urges him to show the other kids what he’s been working on, he reluctantly has his puppet sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

Marjorie is clearly struggling to get the kids engaged, and when Pastor Gregg enters and tells her she needs to present a puppet show to the congregation on Sunday, her anxiety only increases.  We soon see signs that Jason’s puppet is not so sweet after all.  Tyrone seems to have a mind of his own, and when Marjorie insists that Jason perform for the congregation on Sunday since he’s the only “good one,” he begs her not to make him.  Marjorie, still reeling from the death of her husband is barely holding on at this point. She shouts at Jason that he must do this and when he continues to refuse, finally ripping off Tyrone’s head, she screams at Jason to get out of the car.

Now, the puppet is really mad.  In fact, he comes back with a new head, more demonic looking than ever.  Waking Jason up in the night, Jason seemingly can do little to stop it from spewing its nasty truths .  Tyrone gets stronger and stronger until he actually is a physical threat.  What follows is cleverly written story that allows the audience to decide for themselves:  is this horror or psychological drama? There are clues to build a case either way.

Everyone, even sweet Jessica, gives into his/her inner demon to various degrees.  Some characters use a puppet to express their demon, some perhaps attribute their demon self to grief, or loneliness, or neglect.  However, in the end it is Pastor Greg who nails the message on the church door:  We must each be responsible for our own voice.

So, that’s the plot.  There is a lot more to it, but you’ll need to go see the play at the Empire.  And you should.  Here’s why:

The play is clearly thick and chewy and something that will get you thinking and keep you thinking long after you see it.  Then there are the puppets.  You should support puppets, even evil ones. Period. Brava to Amy Lyste for her creations.  They are cute, cuddly, and creepy.

Then there’s the acting. Yowza, Mama!  Where to start?  Let’s start with the new faces (at least to this reviewer).  Welcome, Harsha!  Praveen plays the kid every teacher both dreads and dreams of:  the one you want to kick out and the one you want to find a way to save. Praveen has one throw away line about his mother being drunk all the time that is enough to fill in all the pieces, and explain what comes next.  He does this with the perfect amount of subtlety.  A tribute to the actor and his director.

Then there’s Abigail Plumley. She seems like the most stable of the bunch.  Abigail is the Marilyn among the Munsters.  Not easy to hold your own in such a role, but she does.  I believed in her old soul wisdom, her normal reactions, and ultimately how she attempts to “save” her friend by connecting to him on his level, albeit, oddly (who knew puppets have such stamina?).

Hand to God 04Next, we have Darin Kerr as Pastor Greg. Those who have seen Kerr on stage before will be surprised by the voice he’s created for Pastor Greg.  It perfectly evokes this imperfect man who is just trying to fill his nights with someone to hold and be held by.  Kerr has a monologue to try to win Marjorie over, and it rings full of human weakness and honesty and manipulation all rolled into one slimy mess.

Finally, there are two other performances, and I am not sure which one I like best, but for different reasons.  Let’s start with the more seasoned actor, Nicole Quam.  Holy smackers – the $17 ticket was a bargain!  Quam played all the layers of her character’s grief:  the loss, the guilt, the loneliness, the anger, the confusion, the fragility.  She personifies the word “vulnerable” in her portrayal of the widow whose son is also coming undone.  She cannot help him, and perhaps she knows she is the reason for his behavior, and that compounds her grief.  So, when she cannot behave as a saint, she grabs sinner by both horns, and that, too, is believable.  Quam is comical at first until her lust becomes a pathetic attempt at something that will ground her to the here and now. Brava.

Hand to God requires puppets, which of course means it requires puppeteers.  Jessica and Marjorie can get by with simple hand-up-the-butt of a sock, move mouth, oh, for cute.  But Jason’s part requires a great deal more finesse.  For Jason’s puppet is a character distinctive of Jason.  The rapid fire dialogue between Jason and Tyrone takes incredible concentration since Tyrone speaks with a different voice than Jason does.  High school senior, Casey Hennessey, delivers a performance worthy of a professional actor.  He is so convincing, it’s outright eerie.  There is a part at the end of the play when Tyrone flings Jason around the room.  The puppet doesn’t fling the actor; it’s the other way around, right? Not in this performance.  Hennessey has the ability to remain loose enough to make it seem as though his hand is not an extension of his own arm but is operating of its own free will.

If there is one flaw in this production it is the use of the actors as stagehands. It’s hard to watch Quam pour her guts out on the stage then move a desk during the scene change.  She was Marjorie and then she wasn’t and then she was….same for the other characters.  Find some volunteers, or put some pieces on wheels so it takes fewer people.  I don’t know.  But it’s not fair to the actors. They’re working too hard out there.

Otherwise, it’s a fantastic production. If you miss it, you’re stupid.

I swear I’d go back and see it again —  hand to God.

Hand To God is running at the Empire through February 1-3 and 8-10, 7:30 pm showtime.  Tickets are $17 for adults, $14 for for Student/Military and can be purchased at the door or through the Empire Arts Center website (note: $3.50 convenience fee per ticket applied for tickets purchased through the website).  Seating is extremely limited, so consider purchasing in advance.

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Readers Comments (1)
  1. Nikki Q says:

    Thanks for putting this out there!!!

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