Oliver Castillo plays both the human, Jason, and the puppet, Tyrone. (photo by David Cooper)
Supplementary education programs, or “afternoon schools,” as they’re commonly referred to, instil teens with an understanding of their Jewish heritage, including Hebrew language teaching, Judaic curricula, social activities and an opportunity to connect meaningfully with other Jewish teens. While Hand to God does not take place in a Jewish-oriented environment (in fact, it’s in the basement of a church), it still addresses the common issues of how to teach teens the value of their religion and heritage – and it does so hilariously.
Teacher Margery (the wonderful Jennifer Lines) tries to get three students – Jason, Timothy and Jessica – to pull together a hand-puppet show based on stories of the Hebrew Bible. The play starts with the youths creating their puppets and, at first, all things appear normal, but the disruptive bunch has other ideas.
The brash Timothy has little interest in the puppets but attends the classes because he has a crush on Margery (and is not shy about expressing his feelings) and Jessica seems relatively engaged with the concept. The timid and introverted Jason, Margery’s son, not only embraces the use of puppets but creates a second persona – Tyrone – within his doll.
Margery’s husband has recently died and Jason uses Tyrone to express the feelings of anger and abandonment he has toward his mother. While this dual identity seems rather innocuous at first – and Margery even pleads with Jason to support her in the puppet idea – it gets out of hand. Tyrone’s personality begins to overwhelm that of Jason’s until the unruly mannequin takes over entirely. At times, Jason’s extroverted alter ego is a benefit, helping him convey his attraction to Jessica. At other times, it becomes a raving maniac capable of serious destruction.
As the children deal with their own issues, Margery is dealing with hers. Devastated by the loss of her husband, she feels rudderless and alone. She hopes to find some fulfilment and pleasure in her work with the teens, but that disintegrates quickly as Timothy’s advances and Jason’s/Tyrone’s shenanigans descend into chaos and violence.
Meanwhile, the minister also has feelings for Margery, which puts her in an awkward position, feeling manipulated and lacking support from the one person she feels should be understanding.
Lines gives a credible performance as the confused Margery; and Oliver Castillo is amazing as he carries out the simultaneous roles of Jason and Tyrone.
The play is somewhat autobiographical in that playwright Robert Askins lived in a small town of conservative and religious family values. His mother actually did have an after-school puppet theatre in which Askins participated until his mid-teens, when his father died, after which he turned his back on his faith and became cynical about all things religious.
Though the production will have you laughing from the start, it tackles serious issues, such as the loss of loved ones, the loss of faith, feelings of betrayal and resentment, love and forgiveness. The subject matter will have you wondering how you might deal with similar situations, such as how far do you let a child go in creating a second personality? Is it harmful or helpful, and how do you know when to draw the line?
Hand to God runs at BMO Theatre Centre until June 25. Visit artsclub.com for tickets and showtimes. Warning: there is serious offensive language.
Baila Lazarus is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and photographer. She teaches businesses how to get coverage in mainstream media. More information can be found at phase2coaching.com.