The Paramount’s latest Bold Series production at the Copley Theatre in Aurora is an absolute tour de force by its five-person cast. It is worth attending just to see these actors do their stuff. There isn’t a single person who isn’t absolutely brilliant in this absolutely crazypants play. And it IS crazypants.
It revolves around a young widow Margery (Monica West), and her son, Jason (August Forman), who are working on a church puppet show with two other teen members of the congregation, Jessica (Felicia Oduh), and Timmy (Jordan Moore). And things go immediately off the rails in every way imaginable. Especially as the widow’s son, Jason, becomes possessed by the spirit of his puppet Tyrone (Like Elmo if he was orange and crossed with Animal from the Muppets), or maybe Satan?
And while this demon possession thing is something the play entertains for great comic effect, Tyrone actually functions more as a truth-teller who can cut through the b.s. the adults are peddling, including the church’s Pastor Greg (Adam Wesley Brown). Faux piety, religion as a really bad substitute for needed mental health counseling, and religion as a way for them to displace their own guilt is the set-up for the way this play wrestles with human relationships and the line between doing what’s good for the group and what’s good for the individual.
I had not seen this play before I attended this production and had no idea what to expect. But I’m warning you now that the baggage from your own life that you bring to the theatre is going to affect your enjoyment of this play – which is often outrageously funny – in a variety of ways.
Can we all agree that vigorous and inappropriate puppet sex is hilarious? I’m sure we can. Can we all appreciate the brilliance of Abbott and Costello’s famed “Who’s On First?” routine performed by a boy and his puppet complete with rapid-fire mid-Century comedic timing? I think we can. Can we admire the ironic contemporary Christian music pumped in before the show. Sure, even if it’s kind of painful to listen to. Will we agree that the opening puppet monologue about the evolution of man’s notion of good and evil is funny? Most likely.
And there is probably where everyone in the audience will start to diverge. Personal experiences are going to affect how you react to some of the jokes and situations. I know I laughed way less than most people, which didn’t mean that I wasn’t impressed with the performances or the writing of the play. I just can’t laugh at some of the serious things this play touches on. And it touches on a LOT of serious issues having to do with relationships and power dynamics among adults and kids.
It’s about a widow’s grief, stress and anger. It’s about teens trying to figure out who they are in the world. It’s about loneliness and entitlement. It’s very much about depression and mental illness. It’s about a pastor inappropriately using his position to pressure parishioners for sex. But it’s mostly about adults inappropriately dumping their own emotional issues on children, which is a subject that makes me incandescently angry from my days as a high school teacher (which is one of those bits of baggage I brought to the show.) Everyone is going to react to all of these subjects (and others touched on) in their own way, and that’s what terrific art is all about, isn’t it?
I think women are more likely to have a harder time with this than men for example, because sexual harassment is a thing that happens to both female characters and it happens almost right away. There’s also disparaging accusations of homosexuality, because Christian youth, amirite?
But this play is also full of surprises. The person I thought was going to come down as the villain of the piece actually redeemed themselves quite a lot and provided actual useful advice. The person I thought I was going to sympathize the most with was the one I ended up actually hating because of my own baggage and hard lines I draw in the areas their story arc touched on. But that’s me. And you’re you. And you could well react completely differently to this. Which shows how cleverly written it is.
What you can be absolutely assured of is that it’s a brilliant piece of theatre and well worth watching. Again, it’s worth watching for these actors alone. But there’s so much more to this production as well, despite the small stage. (Kudos to the set designer (Jonathan Berg-Einhorn), lighting designer (Cat Wilson), projection designer (Paul Deziel) and properties designer (Aimee Plant) and to the stagehands who have to untangle the one prop at the end of each performance.) Paramount is knocking it out of the park with this series. This is absolutely like something you’d see downtown or off-Broadway in New York. And you should go because it’s right there in Downtown Aurora. We want to keep art like this in the suburbs.
Hand to God runs from now until July 10, 2022. Tickets are available at the Paramount Box office.
Photos by Liz Lauren