Laugh Like a Demon in The Arts Club Theatre Company’s Hand to God

Oliver Castillo. Photo by David Cooper

When I walked into the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of Hand to God, I didn’t quite know what to expect. I knew the play had something to do with an evil puppet, which is a good thing since I relish subversive puppets (I’ve seen Avenue Q twice). Other than that, I was curious as to what would unfold.

The play quickly won me over with its insanely clever and raw humour. In short, I loved it. Hand to God runs until June 25, 2017 at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Avenue). Make sure to see it before it closes.

First of all, the play is not for those looking for something anodyne and G, or even PG-rated. Hand to God features extremely graphic language and subject matter. In other words, this is not for children, or more sensitive audiences.

With that out of the way, The Arts Club‘s Hand to God is a deliciously unexpected riot. Written by Robert Askins, the play got its start off Broadway before making it big on Broadway and eventually being nominated for 5 Tony Awards. Since then, it’s received worldwide acclaim.

And for good reason. The premise itself sets the narrative up for wicked fun. It takes place in suburban Texas in a church basement, where Margery is leading a group of troubled youth in therapeutic and spiritual puppetry. Margery, who recently lost her husband, leans upon the emotional support of her son, Jason, who is part of the puppet group.

The cast of Hand to God. Photo by David Cooper

Things take a dark turn when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, starts to show devilish tendencies, becoming a being unto itself and revealing Jason’s hidden desires. As the story progresses, the puppet wreaks havoc on the church basement crew, as well as the supposedly earnest Pastor Greg. Puppets reveal attraction for one another, and violence quickly erupts.

Shekhar Paleja, Mike Gill, Jennifer Lines, and Julie Leung. Photo by David Cooper

While I watched the play, I alternated between uproarious laughter, shock, and sometimes sheer horror (the puppet starts to feel extremely real). The play does not hold back whatsoever when it comes to the lines it will cross and the people and institutions it will skewer. Dialogue is unsheathed in its cleverness. And beneath its raucous surface, Hand to God offers interesting commentary on grief, family relationships, hypocrisy, morality, and repressed emotions and impulses.

Oliver Castillo and Julie Leung. Photo by David Cooper

This local production features a stellar cast, with kudos especially going to Oliver Castillo who plays Jason/Tyrone and Jennifer Lines who plays Margery. Castillo manages to alternate seamlessly between playing an awkward and confused adolescent and morphing into a crazed devil. Meanwhile, Lines presents an incredibly believable Margery who struggles with her own demons, conflicted by the mess of emotions she is experiencing and the consequences of the furor she is unleashing.

Jennifer Lines. Photo by David Cooper

Overall, Hand to God is the show to see this spring. See on-line for more details and for tickets (starting at $29).

Alternatively, if you’re looking for something less edgy, but equally enjoyable, Million Dollar Quartet is playing until July 9, 2017 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage. The jukebox musical brings together rock ‘n’ roll legends, Perkins, Lewis, Cash, and Presley, in the Sun Records Studio on December 4, 1956.

Bitter Girl: The Musical will also be running June 15 to July 29, 2017 at the Granville Island Stage. This musical centres on break-ups, using 1960s girl group music (eg “And Then He Kissed Me”) as a way of expressing the journey of falling in and out of love.

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