Puppet sex seems to be a theme this year. First in Avenue Q at Footlite Musicals in March, again in Bat Boy at Theatre on the Square in May, and now in Hand to God, the latest production that the Phoenix Theatre snagged as it came off Broadway. It's also a year of five-star reviews, as I have never handed out so many in such a small amount of time.
Much like Avenue Q, this show integrates puppets into its cast. But here, the puppets aren't used to replace the human character behind (under? in?) them. Only one puppet, Tyrone, could be called an individual character — a demonic, vulgar, bloodthirsty one. Tyrone may be the puppet, but he is the puppet master.
RELATED: Sex, puppets and violence in Hand to God
If religious irreverence shocks you, you will have PTSD after seeing this show. The story is set in a small town in Texas. Margery, played by Angela R. Plank, is a recent widow who is trying to find a place for herself by teaching a puppet-making class at her church. Her awkward son Jason, played by Nathan Robbins, seems inordinately attached to his puppet. Also in class are love-interest Jessica (Jaddy Ciucci) and horny bad boy Timothy (Adam Tran). Margery has to deal with the advances of both Timothy and the church's pastor, Greg (Paul Nicely), while dealing with depression, her estranged son and unmotivated students.
Under the direction of Mark Routhier, the entire cast is stellar, but additional emphasis must be given to Robbins and his character's id in puppet form. His mastery of the craft is remarkable. His puppeteering is so deft that you come to see Tyrone as a separate entity that has accepted the devil as his lord and savior. As Tyrone's rampage escalates, a puppet exorcism is contemplated. In contrast to Tyrone, Robbins conveys a shy, insecure teen in Jason. His split-second oscillation of unrestrained rage to confused, scared boy could twist your spine.
The show is consistently hilarious, but it is also a reflection on human needs and desires. Snappy writing and superior performances make this another one not to miss.
Through July 17, Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., $20 - 33, phoenixtheatre.org