saying things that puppets don’t normally get to say. Maybe that’s because, over the last seventy-five years or so — beginning with Kukla Fran and Ollie and Howdy Doody, all the way to Sesame Street and Mister Rogers — television has enforced the idea that puppets are for kids.
That’s not true.
Consider Punch and Judy, who in medieval times were anything but kid-friendly.
That’s just the tip of a dark and dirty iceberg of puppet-powered adult-oriented entertainment.
Well, in recent years, puppets have been regaining their adult voice through such inappropriate inanimate objects as Greg the bunny, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, those murderous marionettes from “Team America: World Police,” and good old Trekkie Monster – and all the other foul-mouthed porn-surfing residents of “Avenue Q,” the hit Broadway show that gave the world the songs, ‘The Internet is for Porn’ and ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist.’
To that list of celebrated, envelope-pushing puppets, we may now add Tyrone, the hilariously devilish sock puppet who rules over playwright Robert Askin’s remarkable new stage play, ‘Hand to God’ (now running at Berkeley Repertory Theater). Blending clever one-liners, expert slapstick and shocking (but funny) acts of violence, with outrageously pointed observations about faith, guilt, parenthood, and the notions of good and evil, “Hand to God” is extraordinary.
It’s obviously not the first show to feature puppets saying and doing bad things.
But as written by Robert Askins – who was nominated for a 2015 Tony award for this play— “Hand to God’ is always feels fresh and inventive, even a bit transgressive in its willingness to go places very few puppet-shows have ever dared to go.
Directed with spot-on precision by David Ivers, “Hand to God” is set in a small-town Texas church, where a troubled, sweet-spirited teenager named Jason—brilliantly played by Michael Doherty—has just created Tyrone.
Innocent-looking enough, at first, Tyrone was made of socks and yarn – and eventually, teeth – part of the youth puppet ministry run by his recently-widowed mother Margery. Also in the club is the gentle-but-resourceful Jessica, and Timothy, a confrontational teen punk with a serious case of the hots for Jason’s recently widowed mother.
Hoping that a church project might help snap Margery out of her grief, the church’s painfully lonely pastor Greg has basically forced the puppet club on her. It’s not a great fit. All hell breaks loose, literally, when Tyrone begins exhibiting strong anti-social behavior, dropping those aforementioned F-bombs alongside some brutally escalating observations about Jason, his mother, and the other basement-dwelling “Christ-keteers.”
These puppety outbursts begin gradually, with Tyrone tagging inappropriately sexual comments onto a performance of the famous “Who’s on first?” routine, occasionally reciting vaguely threatening facts: “The smallest of cuts to the Achilles tendon will cripple a man for life!”
Before long, though, Jason has to accept the fact that his Id-driven puppet just might be … Lucifer himself. It’s very funny, but also genuinely scary, a testament to Askins’ skill as a writer, and the actors skills as a tight, energetic ensemble.
As Jason/Tyrone, Doherty is a marvel, pivoting between characters with breathtaking speed and precision. The play does go to some very dark places, but the show never loses its inherent sense of humor and heart, or the story’s staunch commitment to the idea that those things out there that we loathe and fear the most, might be closer to home than we prefer to imagine.
‘Hand to God’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through March 19 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, www.berkeleyrep.org