There’s been a meticulousness to every one of director Alexander Berlage’s productions I’ve seen to date, stretching back to his post-NIDA debut, There Will Be a Climax, staged here at the Old Fitzroy Theatre in early 2018.
That same quality is very much evident in his Sydney premiere production of American writer Robert Askins’ Hand to God, a broad comedy that could be unwatchably chaotic were it in less sure hands.
The story is set in a modern day, small town Texas, mostly in the backroom (brilliantly imagined by co-designers Jeremy Allen and Emma White; the American Jesus mural is magnificent) of a Lutheran church run by Pastor Greg (Gerard Carroll, perfect in muscular Christian mode).
While he attends to his flock, the pious, recently widowed Margery (a brilliant Merridy Eastman) runs a class for local teenagers. It is largely devoted to the making of sock puppets.
There are just three participants: Jessica (Michelle Ny); snarky Timothy (Ryan Morgan), and Margery’s socially awkward son Jason (Philip Lynch), who has developed an uncommon bond with his puppet, Tyrone, who serves as a mouthpiece for his anger and sexual frustrations.
Then again, in this part of the world, many might think Tyrone is possessed by the Devil.
The idea of puppet possession is hardly new and Hand of God won’t set you to thinking much about the ways in which we humans offshore blame and responsibility for our actions. But the play is entertaining and frequently funny, especially when Askins’ strait-laced characters drop their facades and start to grapple with their un-Christian feelings.
Berlage has assembled an excellent cast and controls the escalating mayhem expertly. Eastman performs a deft 360 as Margery switches from lonely drudge to dominatrix. Lynch seems to split himself in two as Jason and Tyrone battle for dominance. Ny is quietly terrific as the girl-next-door adept at puppet sex (quite a scene). Morgan is very good as the loudly horny yet submissive Tim.
Strong choices in design, lighting (Phoebe Filcher) and sound (Daniel Herton) play a large part in the show’s success. The reveal of Jason’s grotto of home-made monstrosities that may stir memories of the Toy Story miscreant Sid – is fabulous.