Holy terror: RMTC's 'puppets behaving badly' comedy Hand to God delivers raunchy laughs

All hell breaks loose when an evil puppet takes over in Robert Askins's raunchy Hand to God, but the results are devilishly funny in the dark comedy at the Royal MTC.

All hell breaks loose when the evil puppet takes over, but the results are outrageously funny in dark comedy

Toby Hughes and Tom Keenan (along with Tyrone the puppet) in the Royal MTC's production of Hand to God, a raunchy play about puppets (and people) behaving badly. (Dylan Hewlett)

Most of us acknowledge that we can't go through life saying whatever horrible nastiness we please.

But what if you could let your hand do the talking?

That's the basic premise of Robert Askins's 2011 play Hand to God, a Broadway hit and multiple Tony Award-nominee getting what looks to be its first Canadian production at the Royal MTC Warehouse.

The malevolent puppet Tyrone is a creature of pure id who says what he wants and does what he wants, consequences be damned. (Dylan Hewlett)
Askins, whose father died when he was 16, grew up in Texas with a mother who ran a Christian puppet ministry — where youngsters would make puppets and act out Bible stories with them.

Here, he writes the story of Jason (Tom Keenan), a Texas teen whose mom runs a Christian puppet ministry and whose dad has recently died.

Now, that would normally mess a kid up, but Jason is a sweet lad who just wants to be virtuous and good and nice to everyone.

But his ever-present sock puppet, Tyrone, has other ideas.

A creature of pure id, Tyrone says what he wants and does what he wants, consequences be damned.

And most of what Tyrone says is profane, completely unprintable on this family website and often outright hilarious.

To be certain, this is comedy in a pitch-black vein. But it's more than just an excuse to drop a bunch of four-letter words and see "puppets behaving badly" (an actual warning for this show on the RMTC website, by the way).

Cory Wojcik (left) and Tom Keenan (with Tyrone) in Hand to God, a irreverent play that does have deeper points about suppression of desire, hypocrisy and honesty amongst the four-letter words. (Dylan Hewlett)
Askins does have a deeper point here about suppression of desire — which rears up not just in Jason, but in a outrageously inappropriate fashion for his recently bereaved mother, Margery, played with impeccable timing by Sharon Bajer.

Hand to God is also about honesty ("hand to God" is, after all, an expression that means "honestly"), hypocrisy and whether the veneer of civilization really makes us all that civilized.

And yes, Askins's script isn't too kind to the Lutheran church or organized religion in general. But unlike, say, The Book of Mormon, it also doesn't make the religious here into simple buffoons.

Greg (Cory Wojcik), the pastor at Jason's church, may not have all the answers, but he is portrayed here as a decent man who's flawed but trying his best, and Wojcik gives a suitably layered performance.

On the flip side is bad boy Timothy, a troubled teen played with comic abandon by Toby Hughes. And bringing a rational superego to the proceedings is Jason's crush Jessica (an understatedly funny Amy Keating).

Tom Keenan (as Jason/Tyrone) and Amy Keating (as Jessica) deliver impressive performances in the outrageously funny Hand to God. (Dylan Hewlett)
And Keenan does superb work as Jason/Tyrone, capturing the former's gawkish and bashful charm as well as the gleeful malevolence of the latter. He does a fine job of showing the struggle — both internal and physical — between puppet and master (though which is which is open to some debate).

In director Mitchell Cushman's well-tuned 105-minute (with intermission) production, they race smartly from pure farce to wicked wordplay to some surprisingly thoughtful moments.

Hand to God is sometimes scary in how close it suggests we all are to the edge of pure devilishness, and sometimes thought-provoking. But mostly, it's raunchy and funny as hell.

Hand to God.

Hand to God runs at the Royal MTC's Tom Hendry Warehouse until Feb. 11.


Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.