Talk to the hand! Last chance to see ‘Hand of God’ at EPAC this weeken

By on June 13, 2018

The cast of “Hand to God,” includes (left to right) Tim Riggs as Pastor Gregg, Kristie Ohlinger as Margery, Brian Viera as Timothy, Maggie Shevlin as Jessica, and (front) Sean Deffley as Jason and his puppet, Tyrone.

We’ve all reached the point at some time when we would just like to smack someone across the face (I may be that someone by the end of this review), throw a chair across a room, or let out a verbal tirade so profusely packed with vulgarities and insults even a sailor would blush. But, we don’t do those things, right?

Well, Tyrone does. The situation he is in (and helps create) causes others on the EPAC stage for their latest comedic production, “Hand to God,” to act on those most basic of animalistic impulses.

Tyrone, on the hand of Jason (Sean Deffley), made his Ephrata debut over the weekend and stole the show as “Hand to God” began a two-week run at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre. But, to know him one must first know Jason and the rest of the cast who help bring the puppet Tyrone to fervent climax.

“Hand to God” begins in the school-like setting of a basement in a church somewhere in Texas “where the country meets the city.” Three adolescents wait for instruction from Margery (Kristie Ohlinger), the adult “in charge” — Jason, an introverted young man who turns out to be Margery’s son; Jessica (Maggie Shevlin), who is a little nerdy and a little sexy at the same time; and Timothy (Brian Viera), a testosterone-charged juvenile delinquent with a crush on Margery.

The group has been tasked with creating puppets and Pastor Gregg (Tim Riggs) wants a performance to go with his sermon on Sunday. The problem is, no one is ready, except Jason, with Tyrone who has the vaudevillian skit “who’s on first” and a religious song about Jesus down pat. Jessica’s puppet is still being constructed. (She is fully revealed later.) Timothy’s puppet is non-existent, and he is more obsessed with hooking up with his teacher than anything else.

In a series of hysterical (but unfortunate) events Timothy does hook up with his Margery, Pastor Gregg defines the #MeToo movement, and Tyrone takes over as Jason lets the puppet — eventually deemed to be the devil incarnate — become the voice of all his angst, sorrow, and pent up sexuality.

Tyrone takes on Gregg and the entire system of religion, Timothy and his idiotic machismo, and Margery’s inability to cope with the death of her husband in a flurry of language most abrasive and shocking puppet violence. This is a “laugh out loud” show if there ever was one. Teetering on the edge of uncomfortable and hilarious, members of the audience were caught between gasp and laughter on more than one account.

Sean Deffley (right) and Brian Viera are two of the principal characters in “Hand to God,” showing at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center through June 16. (LNP file photos)

As much as I laughed, I can’t say “Hand to God” is one my favorite shows, but that is nothing against the talent EPAC presented. As a matter of personal preference, I found the story too disjointed, lacking an overall continuity, and simply getting a bit sluggish at parts. For example, while act 1 scene 3 (where Jason summons the courage to tell his mother/teacher he no longer wants to be part of the puppet class during a car ride home) is integral to the story, it seems forced into a production set predominantly at a church-school.

Beyond my nitpicking of one scene change, this break in the action simply takes the viewer out of the natural flow of the tale being told. As a writer, the transitions just bugged me; it’s as if in my next paragraph I would start writing about playwright Robert Askins’ childhood in Texas. You as the reader would need to take a minute to realize where I was going. Maybe I could tie in the fact one of his first plays was titled “Princes of Waco” and it also carries themes of religion and interpersonal struggle. It could work, but the change in topic would derail the point.

And while I started this tangent by stating it is “nothing against the talent EPAC presented,” maybe I should return to that comment. Act 1 scene 3 is a good example of where EPAC talent shines. A regular to the old Playhouse in the Park stage, Ohlinger delivers a gut wrenching, yet vehemently hilarious scene where we learn more about her character from her actions than her words. Margery’s breakdown behind the wheel sets up the dysfunction enveloping a household after the loss of a father and also empowers Jason to rely more heavily on his alter ego puppet, Tyrone.

I just wish scenes like this would have flowed together more seamlessly. “Hand to God” was nominated for a 2015 Tony Award for Best Play, so maybe it’s just me.

In the end, the skill of the actors involved in EPAC’s “Hand to God” cannot be oversold. The players are strong, are talented, and command each of their roles with professionalism and artistic expertise. Sean Deffley is a genius behind a puppet. For those who saw EPAC’s 2013 “Avenue Q” you may remember Deffley’s talents as Princeton. Since “Avenue Q” Deffley has been seen in “Hair,” “Green Day’s American Idiot,” and “Assassins,” but I’m sure he has also been honing his skills in puppetry somehow. His ability to command two polar opposite characters at once (Tyrone and Jason) is simply spellbinding. I can’t imagine his talents are a force this area can contain for long, as bigger and brighter stages could only magnify his gifts.

“Hand to God” is co-directed by EPAC artistic director Edward Fernandez and local actor-turned-director, Bob Breen. Their charge through this show was to present an uproariously comedic tale, which rests on the serious pillars of morality, mortality, and religion. Theirs is a stable piece of art.

Author and distinguished professor Samuel L. Becker wrote, “The basic role of theatre in society, like the basic role of all of the arts, can be stated in one sentence. It is to give pleasure to the members of that society and to make our world more beautiful and exciting.”

To that extent EPAC has succeeded once again.

You can purchase tickets for “Hand to God” at ephrataperformingartscenter.com. But hurry! The show’s final performance is Saturday night.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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