Encore Michigan

‘Hand To God’ at Monster Box makes its point loud and dirty

Review October 29, 2018 David Kiley

WATERFORD, TWP., Mich.–Religion is utter BS unless it is the basic human religion of being kind, fair and respectful to one another. And the devil is in your mind only. He’s no more a thing than a sock puppet. That is the takeaway from Robert Askins’ Hand To God, now playing here at The Monster Box Theatre.

Be aware. If you hold your religion dear to your heart and soul, you aint gonna like this play. Indeed, during its early New York City run, patrons were reported to exit the theater in the first ten minutes asking for refunds at the box office. The language is harsh and caustic, as is the point of view expressed by the playwright.

And whether or not you find Tyrone the puppet, and the site of puppets bonking, hilarious is entirely up to you.

Tyrone the puppet opens up the show with a foul-mouthed screed, articulated by a teenager, Jason (Joe Gaskill), whose arm he has co-opted. He has your attention better or for worse. For the rest of the play, Tyrone generally verbally terrorizes Jason and everyone else in the story.

The sparse setting is a church basement in suburban Texas, where a few posters proclaim happy thoughts about Jesus. Jason is a moody, unhappy teen irked as his mother, Margery (Sarah Burcon) prepares a group of kids for a Christian puppet show. She is also the object of desire by her pastor (Michael Brody) who is both goofy and inappropriate.

Margery is a widow–anxious, angsty and we come to find out, horny. She unleashes her inner cougar with one of the church youth, Timmy (Alex Morrison). Burcon is very good at capturing the confused, over-taxed, lonely, resentful, fed-up Mom. She careens by design in the script, but we root for her despite her fairly egregious fall to temptation with an kid her son’s age.

Jason and Tyrone are Jekyll and Hyde. The teenager speaks in gentle tones like a kid content to stay in his room playing video games rather than talking to people, while Tyrone snarls forth, prying up the scabs of everyone in his field of vision. Gaskill plays these parts with great dexterity, switching back and forth on a dime. Ultimately, he comes out of his corner with the help of the fair and patient Jessica (Jane Clinton) who brings some texture and levels to a part not developed that much in the script.

A play of this structure and approach lacks charm. But that’s the point. What makes the play sneak up on you, if you let it, is watching and hearing the bald-faced attacks on religion that seem, in many moments, ham-handed. But when you stop to add up the daily, weekly, monthly, yearly assaults on our rationale and societies by organized religion, you can appreciate the need to swing a ham or two, or three, or four.

It’s a harsh and caustic view of religion. But who can blame playwright Robert Askins. How much killing has gone on under the auspices of religion for centuries. And today, we have so-called evangelicals’ out-sized support for a serial philanderer and corrupt President. There are so-called prosperity pastors who sell an idea of getting rich through following the word of Christ, as if he or she aren’t the only ones getting rich that way. There’s a Catholic Church, complicit in decades of covered up sexual abuse of children by so-called celibate priests. There is Bernie Madoff, who used his Judaism and community of Jews in New York to lure wealthy Jews to his Ponzi scheme, and Hasidics who protect child molesters and worse by not turning them into state law-enforcement on religious grounds. There are Shias and Sunnis bankrupting the West as the two warring religious tribes battle for power. Isreali Jews and Palestinians hold the world captive to unspeakable violence over so-called “Holy ground, as if faith couldn’t be practiced and lived in a section of Saskatchewan that we’d all be happy to fund if they’d stop sending rockets at one another and destabilizing the world. How many terrorists, both domestic and international, wear their religion on their sleeves with tattoos or speak to it with last words.

Yes, Hand To God is rough. But the point is that it ought to be to get your attention. General George Patton said about talking to his troops, “When I want them to listen, I give it them loud and dirty.”

Click here for show details and ticket info.