Hand to God

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 18, 2019

Brian Kozak in "Hand to God," through December 8 at the Burbage Theatre Company
Brian Kozak in "Hand to God," through December 8 at the Burbage Theatre Company  

The best way to describe Playwright Robert Askins' "Hand To God" is to call it a blend of the sacred and the profane. The story of a puppet with a mind of its own is often outrageously funny thanks to a terrific ensemble cast and sharp direction by Kate Kataja ("Polaroid Stories").

In the basement of a church in a small Texas town, a group of teenagers have been assigned the task of creating puppets.

Brian Kozak ("Polaroid Stories") plays Jason, a strange and introverted boy who suppresses his anger and sadness. Jason's puppet is Tyrone, a foul-mouthed alter-ego saying whatever crosses his mind. At one point, Tyrone has many types of intercourse with Jolene, a female puppet being operated by Jessica (a likable Maggie Papa).

After Tyrone nearly bites off the ear of one of Jason's classmates, Pastor Greg (Michael Thibeault) fears the puppet is suffering from demonic possession.

This may seem like a rip from the smash musical "Avenue Q," but "Hand To God" digs deeper into more complex human emotions. For Jason, Tyrone is more than just a puppet — it's a way for him to express his inner demons. It's amusing but very sad at the same time.

Andrew Iacovelli, seen recently in Burbage's "The School For Lies", plays Timothy, a wisecracker who develops an infatuation with Margery (Melissa Penick), the teacher. Margery is also Jason's mother.

Iacovelli and Penick's frenzied sex scene, complete with thrown chairs and other examples of wanton destruction, is a comic highlight. Iacovelli gleefully eats pages of a calendar to please the object of his affection. It's a hilariously twisted type of foreplay.

Penick also gives a strong performance as the tormented Margery, a woman who has sought salvation in the church. A sad scene in a car illustrates the huge emotional divide between Margery and Jason, who blames her for the circumstances surrounding his father's death.

Penick and Thibeault have some powerful moments together. Pastor Greg has taken an interest in Margery, who rebuffs his affections. Margery slams a Bible on the floor in a stunning condemnation of religious orthodoxy. Her faith has been destroyed.

The source of all the conflict in the church is Tyrone, who taunts everyone with his vulgarity and bravado.

Kozak has the most challenging role in the play and succeeds brilliantly by exhibiting the goodness in humanity (Jason) and the evil (Tyrone). Jason's act of self-mutilation during the climax is emotionally shattering. He is fighting to break free of the dark side of his personality. It's a real tour de force from Kozak.

The sound design (by Jeff Church) and Jessica Winward's lighting are effective, as is Baron Pugh's set design.

Askins, who based "Hand To God" on his own experiences, takes a metaphorical hammer to religious hypocrisy and our own judgmental natures. None of us is without sin so maybe it's time we learn to forgive each other.

"Hand To God" runs through December 8. Burbage Theatre Company. 59 Blackstone Avenue, Pawtucket, RI. For more information, visit https://www.burbagetheatre.org.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.