Puppet Masters

'Hand to God' is devilish good fun

After 22 seasons of TV’s South Park and 15 years of Broadway’s Avenue Q, audiences may be somewhat desensitized to youngsters dropping F-bombs or puppets vigorously engaged in coitus. Prepare to be re-sensitized.

Robert Askins’ Hand to God, running at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through Nov. 11, adds blasphemy to the mix, and the end result is one helluva dark, mean and funny play.

The play opens in the basement of a rural Texas church. It’s the meeting place of the Christketeers, a Christian puppet club that Pastor Greg (Carl Kraines) thinks is a good vehicle to help recently widowed Margery (Melissa Claire) out of her funk. The club has three members: Margery’s introverted son, Jason (Dean Linnard); the ne’er do well Timmy (Neil Thollander), who’s basically been sentenced to the club; and Jessica (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), the only member who actually has an interest in puppetry, albeit Balinese shadow puppetry.

Jason introduces his puppet, Tyrone, to Jessica with a painfully unfunny, half-finished version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine, and the seeds of affection grow between them. Pastor Greg hopes similar seeds will grow between him and Margery, while it’s Timmy’s anatomy that grows when Margery enters his mind. Something else that’s growing through all of this is Tyrone’s “personality,” to the point that his mother thinks the puppet might be demonically possessed.

Linnard, a trained puppeteer, really puts his skills to work here, and his ability to play two distinct characters simultaneously is a joy to watch. Parrott-Thomas matches him in puppetry skill in one particularly physical scene. Claire is good as a woman on the verge of collapse who makes some really bad choices, while Thollander (the object of one of those choices) is effectively loutish. Kraines does nice work as the put-upon pastor.

Askins’ deeper-than-it-lets-on script, crisp direction by Chris Ginesi, a clever set design by Argo Thompson (leading to some really funny sight gags) and outstanding character work by all lead to a devilishly entertaining show.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★★

‘Hand to God’ runs through Nov. 11 at Left Edge Theatre. 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Friday–Saturday, 8pm; Sunday, 2pm. $25–$40. 707.546.3600.

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