Poor Margery. She’s dealing with the loss of her husband by using liturgical puppets as a ministry at her Christian church. She’s not a puppeteer by trade, and she can’t sing or preach, she says, so she will show her love for the church through the Christkateers puppet club and it will be her path to salvation. That is until her son Jason’s puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by Satan, and the church pastor comes on to her in a sweet and gentle way which is NOT the way the teen Lothario of the puppet club declares his desire for her. What’s a mother to do?
So that’s the innocent set up of “Hand to God” the wickedly funny and very moving show on stage at Road Less Traveled Productions, now until March 29. It took a couple years for RLTP to finally get Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated show on stage in Buffalo, and – hand-to-God – it will be one of the best shows you will see all season. The script is both hilarious and deeply moving and the performances by Jenn Stafford as Margery and Dan Urtz as her son Jason are outstanding.
There’s a lot of love about this show. Dyan Burlingame’s set nails the typical church basement classroom and she cleverly drops in a concealed space that serves as two rooms in Margery and Jason’s home. Diane Almeter Jones was in touch with her inner child in searching out perfect props to add to the spaces. My favorite was the toy automobile console and steering while that Stafford “drove” with deadpan perfection. Tyrone and Jolene – the puppets – were the work of designer Adam Kreutinger. Tyrone the sock puppet started out as a goofy gray sock dressed in child-friendly primary colors and evolved into the devil incarnate with teeth that draw blood and a demonic expression. Jolene is all woman with extra large sequin nipples. Hysterical.
It’s the acting that makes this wild ride of a script so sublime. Stafford is flat out amazing as the perfect Christian mom full of pent up sexuality covered in Southern charm. She’s exactly how you never want to imagine your mom. John Kreuzer is the slightly sweaty Pastor Greg who lusts in his heart for Margery while teaching the good word to his flock. Teen lover-boy Timmy is the kid you love to hate and Henry Farleo has the swagger to pull it off. Maura Nolan Coseglia is Jessica, the kind hearted girl in puppet club who is designing Jolene with a little bit of bad girl. It’s Dan Urtz as Jason that owns almost every scene. As Jason he’s soft-spoken and child-like; when he’s Tyrone, his voice is angry and evil and full of potty-mouth-puppet rage. He shifts gears between personae effortlessly. John Hurley’s direction keeps the show tight and on target. The funniest scene has to be when puppet Jolene tries to calm Tyrone’s inner beast with her womanly charms. If you had your fill of puppets enjoying sock-on-sock action in “Avenue Q,” this is a whole different story. Urtz and Nolan Coseglia took this to the limit.
Underneath the loads of laughs and the twisted story of sock puppets with a mind of their own, the human story is poignant. Loneliness and isolation harm the human psyche. Dealing with loss and absent parents – through death or their own despair – have deep residual impacts. How we deal with the life we’re handed can be a painful struggle to survive, fit in, and find love. Role playing can indeed bring out our demons until our authentic selves take charge.
“Hand to God” is great fun and an outstanding showcase for some of our region’s finest theatre talent. It run just two hours with a 15-minutre intermission to March 29. Find details and tickets at www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.