Smile Politely

Sympathy for the…sock puppet?

Starting this week C-U audiences will be able to make the close acquaintance of the character once deemed “America’s favorite Satanic sock puppet” by The New York Times. The sock puppet in question, the perhaps literally devilish Tyrone, is at the center of the plot of Hand to God, the Tony Award-nominated play by Robert Askins debuting at the Station Theatre on Thursday night.

Hand to God tells the story of a puppet ministry in a Southern town that takes an unusual turn when the puppet created by one of the teenaged members begins to assert itself in increasingly diabolical ways. The woman running the ministry has been asked to take the project on as a way of working through her grief following the death of her husband, but her son Jason’s creation of —and then deeply concerning relationship with— the vicious Tyrone soon threatens to cancel out any therapeutic benefits of her involvement. The pastor of the church and the other members of the ministry are equally embroiled in the humorous drama surrounding Tyrone’s (and Jason’s?) troubling behavior.

The show’s included puppetry elements pose unique challenges for the cast and are a large part of Hand to God’s appeal for audiences. The interplay between Jason and Tyrone is particularly likely to impress, as it effectively requires one actor to play two roles simultaneously whenever both characters are onstage together, with each character immediately visually reacting to what the other says and does. The play also appeals to audiences through its humorous and often raunchy approach to serious questions about morality and religion.

Playwright Askins was inspired to write Hand to God by his own experiences in a puppet ministry run in his conservative hometown of Cypress, Texas during his teenage years. From its initial Off-Broadway run in 2011, the show has been both a popular and a critical hit, receiving five Tony Award nominations for its Broadway run in 2015. Since then it has quickly become one of the country’s most popular newer shows to produce at the regional level.

Veteran local director Mikel L. Matthews Jr. was more than ready to tackle Hand to God after directing a number of offbeat productions in the area in recent years, including She Kills Monsters, Bat Boy, and Evil Dead: The Musical. Smile Politely chatted with him about this latest production:

SP: You’ve directed a string of quirky shows in the last few years. What about Hand To God made you choose it as your next project?

Matthews: I’d actually put in a few rather normal, but really good, relationship dramas surrounding divorce for this season, as well as one about a writing teacher and his workshop group. Another company member, Thom Schnarre (who is doing my costuming) had put it in as a possibility. They chose the show The Birds for Thom and passed the Hand to God script along to me. I read the first few pages and wrote back to say I was 90% sure I was in. I didn’t even finish it before I said that I was all-in on this production.

I certainly like shows that strike me with something that sparks an idea that feels unique to me in them: an image or a moment that jumps out to me as not how someone else might direct it. That, and the fact that I have a love of some quirky things and digging out the humanity of those quirks, made them think of me for this script. I’m glad they did.

SP: The role of Jason sounds pretty demanding, both physically and mentally. What qualities were you looking for when casting your leading man?

Matthews: I was looking for someone who could play Jason, who’s often frightened or overwhelmed, and could also turn on a dime to play the much more aggressive Tyrone. The audition process gave me an idea of who could differentiate the two characters. I got lucky in that the person I chose, Evan Seggebruch, seems to have taken to the use of the puppet pretty naturally.

SP: What about “casting” your leading puppet? Who did you have working on puppet design and what were the challenges of creating the perfect Tyrone?

Matthews: We totally cheated.  We’re renting the puppets from the Victory Gardens theatre in Chicago, who recently did the show.  

(SP Note: While we had admittedly hoped for a more thrilling tale of daredevil puppet design, the Victory Gardens production drew rave reviews and had its run extended twice, so this definitely makes sense as an option. We’ll just hope that the Chicago Tyrone hasn’t gotten too egotistical to work with thanks to all those good reviews…)

SP: How did you approach getting the cast comfortable with the puppetry aspect of Hand To God? Were there any particular performers or other sources you asked them to look at?

Matthews: Part of it was giving them the chance to play with the puppets through some improv so they weren’t stuck to the script. It’s also amazingly hard to do a rehearsal that’s not off-book when you’re using a puppet in one hand.  

I also found it useful to have some rehearsals where I played Tyrone against Evan’s Jason and then Jason against Evan’s Tyrone as two actual people to help him develop the different physicalities of the characters.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about the show?

Matthews: It’s incredibly funny. It’s not for kids. It’s one of those shows that manages to be incredibly strange and dark and funny but manages to earn a complex emotional ending for the characters at the end of it.  It would have been easy to have this just be a slapstick show but character is the most important thing.

Hand to God will be playing at the Station Theatre from January 19th-February 4th with 8 PM performances from Thursday-Sunday as well on Wednesday January 25th and Wednesday February 1st. Tickets are $10 for Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday performances and $15 for Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations can be made at the Station Theatre website or by calling 217-384-4000. 

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