A Devil in Mind Reaches Out a Hand to God

Robert Askins' sock-puppet-hating play deals with the dirty, libidinal instincts we work so hard to contain.

  • What made you want to use a puppet?

  • I hate puppets.

That’s the playwright Robert Askins’ response to Sarah Rose Leonard, Berkeley Rep’s Literary Manager. His play, Hand to God, revolves around a teenager named Jason and — wait for it — his sock puppet Tyrone.

Askins goes on to explain where this puppet hatred comes from: “I was held back between kindergarten and first grade, and the school therapist took a whole bunch of us into a room and we would do a little puppet show that was supposed to help us process our emotions. And I fucking hated it. I hated it. I hated it.”

While it’s true that Hand to God seethes with Askins’ adolescent rage, it’s also a funny, scathing indictment of false pieties. It was the most cathartic play I’ve seen since the November election. There was a genuine sense of alarm in the audience, followed by a jarring relief that the characters plainly speak their minds. Askins unleashed jagged things, an innate opposition to authority figures and the dirty, libidinal instincts we work so hard to contain or lie about. In this play, he fires his best shots into the roiling culture wars, and hits the targets dead center.

(l to r) Michael McIntire (Timothy) and Michael Doherty (Jason/Tyrone) in the West Coast premiere of Hand to God at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep)

Margery (Laura Odeh) is a Lutheran, church-going widow and an after-school teacher. As with

Laura Odeh (Margery) and Michael McIntire (Timothy) in the West Coast premiere of Hand to God at Berkeley Rep. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Askins’ childhood therapist, she’s teaching a small group of kids, including her son Jason (Michael Doherty), the craft of puppet making. She’s an aging Southern belle whose marriage seems to have repressed every ounce of her sexuality, but that’s about to end. Odeh is a marvel in this role. She takes what might have been a worn out cliché and animates Margery with oodles of charm, vivacity, and a believable lustiness.

Jason works on his puppet alongside Jessica (Carolina Sanchez) and Timothy (Michael McIntire), a black clad rebel. Jason’s crush on Jessica is at a tipping point, as is Timothy’s unwillingness to participate in puppeteering. Tyrone is the wild card. At first, he sings an innocuous song that seems to reflect Jason’s innate sweetness. But as his hormones start to rev up, Tyrone’s vocabulary also begins to change. Instead of an innocuous sock reciting hymns, his voice carries an unanticipated malevolence. It’s a perfect metaphor for the split brain of adolescents. Jason still wants his mother’s love, and he wants to obey her to secure it. Tyrone, quite literally on the other hand, encourages Jason’s disobedience.

Essentially, Michael Doherty is acting two roles. He’s great as Jason, but astonishing as Jason-cum-Tyrone. With subtle hand movements and vocal modulation, Doherty gives sinister life to a dark, woolen sock on the end of his hand. Everyone in this cast though is lively and up for Askins’ game of “The Emperor Has No Clothes.” In this case, the emperor is Pastor Greg (David Kelly), the man in charge of Margery’s church. Kelly lends the deflated pastor an oiliness but doesn’t make him out to be a buffoon. The playwright pushes a stereotypical character like Margery or Pastor Greg to the limit but never takes away their quirky human failings. Askins may like to disturb the atmosphere but the playwright is more forgiving of adults than his necessarily defensive, adolescent self.

At one point, Hand to God strays into the supernatural but in a silly, recognizable-from-the-movies way. Jason’s coming-of-age story stays believable though because Askins’ focus remains on the universal dilemma of every adolescent boy: How will I grow up to be a man? As the mischievous Tyrone might answer that question, “The devil is in the details.” Even if, like the playwright himself, you hate puppets, the details in Hand to God are wicked, brazen and well worth watching.

Hand to God, through March 19, at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, 510-647-2900 or berkeleyrep.org. 
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