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Hand To God - Review

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by Jon Cocks (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in the Adelaide Hills.
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'Sesame Street' meets 'The Exorcist'
Hand to God
Sesame Street meets the Exorcist

"Sesame Street meets The Exorcist," they said on Broadway. And rightly so. The climax of Act One is worth the price of admission alone.

Adelaide University Theatre Guild has long been producing some of Adelaide's more controversial shows, stretching back to 1993's Eureka Stockade, directed by Peter Goers and featuring a very young Emily Branford, whose long theatrical journey has brought her back once again into a cast of five truly switched on performers, inside the Adelaide Uni cloisters to the very stage where she first trod the boards.

Robert Askins' dark comedy Hand to God might become a future dictionary reference for dramatic controversy. Community theatre was never this... er ... explicit in the old days. 'It was totally hand to god,' one might say in the future, in reference to a performance that skates the thin edge between genius and off-the-wall crassness. There may have been the odd puppet onstage in past nights on the Adelaide boards, but no puppetry - including that of the penis - has ever reduced an opening night audience to such extremes of hilarity and affront.

Hand of God, written by Texan Robert Askins, comes with great wraps. After premiering Off-Broadway in 2011, it opened on Broadway in 2015 to critical and audience acclaim and received five Tony award nominations, including Best Play. It was on director Nick Fagan's theatrical bucket list and he has ticked off this tightly focused, wildly entertaining journey into the very nature of good and evil with a flourish-and-a-half.

The University of Adelaide Theatre Guild SA premiere production does not so much explore its themes of faith, morality, and the ties that bind us; rather, it fires them at us repeatedly through a comedy cannon while allowing us occasional moments to digest the message in what Bob Dylan might declaim as its characters' 'moments of doubt and pain', genuine cameos of sustained ensemble dramatic acting seamlessly interwoven with the outrageously black comedy.

Matt Houston as Jason
Matt with puppet Tyrone

After the death of his father, meek Jason (Matt Houston) finds an outlet for his anxiety at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the devoutly religious, quiet small town of Cypress, Texas. It is apparent early that his puppet Tyrone is Jason's dark side. The tour de force that is Houston's performance establishes the duality of his soul and highlights brilliantly Jason's deep insecurities.

While Houston is no ventriloquist and his accent perhaps favours New York rather more than that of the Lone Star State at the end of America's notorious Bible Belt, Tyrone's appearance and voice take charge of the audience so totally that it requires a mental effort to remind oneself that Houston's many solo exchanges with the puppet are the work of one actor with one hand up a large sock puppet while the other manipulates the puppet's hands.

Brendan Cooney, Emily Branford, Matt Houston, Laura Antoniazzi, Tim Tassone
Pastor, Mother, Bully, Girl Next Door, Jason

Jason's relationships with the town pastor (Brendan Cooney), the school bully (Tim Tassone), girl next door Jessica (Laura Antoniazzi), and - most especially - his mother Margery (Emily Branford), are already complicated before Tyrone develops his own persona.

Things get complicated
Tyrone wreaks havoc

Branford is in sparkling form as Margery, the sexually repressed widow with the Texas-twanging accent, a professed relationship with Jesus and a hunger for country music as compensation for her loneliness and her son's apparent waywardness. Cooney switches seamlessly between farce and serious dramatic characterisation, Tassone is the epitome of a swaggering bully until his comeuppance, while Antoniazzi's sweet girl next door contrasts shockingly with her puppetry 'duet', shall we say, with Jason and Tyrone in Act Two, another singular scene worth the price of admission alone.

Heather Jones and Carmel Boffa were responsible for props, often a not-very-exciting brief that entails assembling cutlery for a table or drinks paraphernalia, or maybe - more interestingly - the gun that Chekov says must be fired before the end of the final act. But seeing Barbi-like figures in sexually compromising positions on return from interval is only a teaser for what unfolds when ... well, I leave it to you to buy your ticket and see this brilliant show. *****

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Why? It's a SA premiere and it is wildly entertaining
When: 7.30 nightly Thurs - Sat, 4.00 matinees Sun Nov 20 & 27
Where: Little Theatre, Adelaide University
Cost: $25
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by Vanessa on 26/10/2022
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