Dark comedy ‘Hand to God’ delights

Photo courtesy of Alliance Theatre

As the Alliance Theatre’s location in the Woodruff Arts Center on Peachtree St. is being renovated, venues across Atlanta have hosted the company’s performances this season. Tucked away on a quiet residential street, Dad’s Garage occupies a renovated church. The setting was fitting for the Alliance Theatre’s latest production, “Hand to God.”

The dark puppet comedy nearly defies explanation but certainly exceeds expectations. A recently widowed mom, Margery (Wendy Melkonian) leads the puppet ministry “Christcateers” at a Lutheran church in a Texas town.

Her students include the troubled bully Timothy (Patrick Wade), the girl-next-door Jessica (Alexandra Ficken)  and her own son Jason (Ben Thorpe). Jason struggles to overcome his father’s death as he struggles with his puppet Tyrone, who begins to take on a life of his own. The small, talented cast is rounded out by Pastor Greg (Allan Edwards).

From the introduction of the performance by Allan Edwards to the set’s bulletin board of “Jesus washes our sins away!” above colorful paper shirts, the show mocked saccharine Christian culture with cutting accuracy.

Before the play began, audience members were invited to join the “mission crusade” and asked to turn to their neighbors and hold hands. Pastor Greg faithfully used fake curse words like “darn” in contrast to the vulgarity spewed by the puppet and others. “Hallelujahs” were dotted throughout the performance, most hilariously during a sex scene.

Like many self-aware commentaries on Christianity, the show opened with the line “In the beginning … ”.  The puppet Tyrone delivered a hilarious reconstruction of human history, prepping the audience for a night of laugh-out-loud vulgarity and absurdity rooted in a deeper message.

As puppet practices progress, it becomes clear that Tyrone is not under Jason’s control. The puppet speaks without a filter, revealing quiet, well-behaved Jason’s repressed thoughts — that he wants to sleep with Jessica, that he feels unloved by his mother who has been focusing on her own loss. While representing that darker side all people have, the puppet also proves a positive force in Jason’s life at times: his assertive actions defend Jason from Timothy’s bullying.

Insightful commentary on family dynamics and loss is tucked below the surface of the sassy puppet’s rants and the humans who interact with him. As Margery processes her grief in an unconventional, shocking way, Wendy Melkonian makes her character’s pain relatable.

Ben Thorpe executed both mental and physical gymnastics in his dual performance, which made Tyrone’s independence seem believable. Dripping in sweat, he impressively navigated even fight scenes with his second self.

The climax of the first act was so powerful that the audience would not have been disappointed if the play had ended right then. However, as the audience returned to the Cypress, Texas church for the second act, the set had been hilariously ravaged by the potentially possessed puppet.

From defaced Barbies and stuffed animals to the rearrangement of the Scrabble letters “Welcome Hello” to “We come to Hell,” the drastic and detailed change fit the production’s ability to keep surpassing expectations.

Just when one thought the show could not get any weirder, any more passionate, any more vulgar, the bar was raised yet again. The increasingly emotionally charged performance was nearly stressful during the second act, but the payoff was all worth it. The blend of physical comedy — whether bloody injuries or the moves of Margery’s suitors — with the verbal humor kept the show from becoming too heavy.

The change of transition music from Veggie Tales and Christian “rock” in the first act to punky tunes in the second complemented the heightened mood. Special effects, especially in the car scene, punctuated the acting well.

The larger-than-life ending came full circle. Even if the audience  was not moved by the examination of internal demons or the puppeteering of society at large, they left with a few new catchy phrases: “You’re so in the closet, you’re in Narnia,” “balls deep in love,” “extracurricular f*******.”