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Theatre Reviews Coal Mine Theatre’s Hand to God unleashes inner demons – in the form of a hand puppet

Robert Askins’s raucously irreverent black comedy – a modest hit on Broadway in 2015 and now closing out the Coal Mine’s season – is a sort of Avenue Q-meets-The Exorcist affair.

Kristina Ruddick/Coal Mine Photo

Title: Hand to God

Written by: Robert Askins

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Genre: Comedy

Director: Mitchell Cushman

Actors: Frank Cox-O’Connell, Ted Dykstra, Amy Keating, Francis Melling and Nicole Underhay

Company: Coal Mine Theatre

Venue: Coal Mine Theatre

City: Toronto

Year: Runs to Sunday, May 12

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With his thatch of ginger hair and liquid brown eyes, actor Frank Cox-O’Connell can look as pure-hearted as the classic Archie Andrews-type boy next door. But when those eyes take on an unnervingly intense stare, and he breaks into a wicked grin, you could just as easily be persuaded that he has the devil inside.

Or, in the case of his latest performance, that he has the devil on his right hand. In the form of a puppet.

Cox-O’Connell exploits that angelic/demonic contrast to hilarious perfection as the Christian kid possessed by his satanic sock puppet in Coal Mine Theatre’s production of Hand to God.

Robert Askins’s raucously irreverent black comedy – a modest hit on Broadway in 2015 and now closing out the Coal Mine’s season – is a sort of Avenue Q-meets-The Exorcist affair. Or, as one of its characters glibly puts it, a Dr. Jekyll and Miss Piggy story. It’s all about the demons lurking inside us – not to mention the hypocrisy of religion, which the Texas-born, Christian-bred Askins is keen to tell us about. But if his messages are old news, his play does offer a terrific double role for its leading actor.

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Cox-O’Connell stars as Jason, a mild-mannered Texan teenager whose mom, Margery (the superb Nicole Underhay), is running a puppet club, the Christketeers, in a church basement. Margery, recently widowed, is trying to get her mind off her husband’s sudden heart-attack death by staging a Bible play with Jason and fellow teens Jessica (Amy Keating) and Timothy (Francis Melling). To that end, Jason has crafted a cute, gravelly-voiced hand-and-rod puppet that he’s christened Tyrone.

Frank Cox-O’Connell stars as Jason, a mild-mannered Texan teenager whose mom, Margery (the superb Nicole Underhay), is running a puppet club, the Christketeers, in a church basement.

Kristina Ruddick/Coal Mine Photo

Only Tyrone won’t stay cute. Soon he’s taken over his maker, blurting out Jason’s secret lust for Jessica, spewing obscenities and taunting cool-kid Timothy. After an unsuccessful attempt to get rid of him, he comes back to Jason’s hand with a vengeance, as a scar-faced, knife-wielding devil-in-a-tube-sock who wreaks havoc among the Christketeers. Steamy puppet sex and gory puppet violence ensue.

As it turns out, Jason isn’t the only one unleashing his inner demon – Tyrone’s antics seem to be a catalyst for others to reveal their dark sides. The distraught Margery is tempted into a torrid BDSM affair with underage Timothy, who is besotted with her. Jessica builds her own smutty puppet to lure Tyrone. Even namby-pamby Greg, the church’s pastor (played by Ted Dykstra in his best Ned Flanders mode), is driven to an outburst in which he confesses his loneliness and frustration.

Askins’s satire of failing and flailing Christians has its touches of poignancy, most notably in Margery’s struggle with grief. Underhay brings her Shaw Festival chops to the role, giving a sympathetic portrayal of a woman in pain trying hopelessly to keep up a sunny demeanour. Melling is an amusing foil for her as the crude but innocent Timothy, while Keating gets to do a sexy-funny turn as Jessica’s Jezebel puppet.

It’s Cox-O’Connell’s show, however, and he does a brilliant job of juggling gentle Jason and the aggressive, unfiltered Tyrone. At one moment he has the choked voice of a boy who has barely hit puberty and in the next, he’s talking trash in a cigarettes-and-whisky growl that oozes cynicism and sin. At the same time, he subtly conveys the tremor of suppressed anger in Jason that fuels Tyrone’s noxious tirades. He gets the laughs that the role provides, but he also brings out its pathos.

Mitchell Cushman, who previously directed the play for the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2017, stages it here with brio, revelling in its American grotesqueries. Anahita Dehbonehie’s church-basement set has a cheerful tackiness just waiting to be upended. Later, we see Tyrone has scrawled on a wall the Trumpian slogan “Make Jason great again.” There is lurid red lighting from Nick Blais to give the possession scenes a touch of hell, topped off by the spooky strains of Bram Gielen’s music.

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The delightfully perverse puppets are designed and directed by Marcus Jamin, who originally created them for the RMTC production. Appropriately enough, Jamin formerly apprenticed under no less a master than Ronnie Burkett, who was blazing trails for raunchy, adult-themed puppetry when Askins was still in grade school. That’s another reason why, for some of us, Hand to God feels like old news.

Askins has cited the late British playwright Sarah Kane as one of his heroes and, like her, he uses shock tactics to deal with underlying trauma. It may be that Jason isn’t possessed, but simply indulging in an extreme form of what child psychologists refer to as play therapy. But Hand to God never really goes beyond the shock of a filthy, evil devil puppet and the novelty – fiendishly funny though it still is – wears thin long before the end.

Hand to God continues to May 12. (coalminetheatre.com)

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