Review: Hand to God (Coal Mine Theatre)

Frank Cox-O'Connell and Tyrone photo by Kristina RuddickCoal Mine Theatre presents the Toronto premiere of this dark, irreverently funny play

In the dark comedy Hand to God, a Texas teen’s Christian ministry puppet comes to life becoming a foul-mouthed, troublemaker and slowly takes over the teen’s life, wreaking havoc on everybody around him. I first saw this play on Broadway in 2015 and though I had forgotten most of the plot details, I distinctly remember laughing so hard I nearly cramped up so I jumped at the opportunity to catch the first Toronto production by Coal Mine Theatre, performed in their intimate storefront venue on the Danforth.

Hand to God is written by American playwright Robert Askins, and I love the dark, irreverent humour in the script. While Askins shines a spotlight on the hypocritical nature of sanctimonious but falsely pious evangelical Christians in the American South, his play is actually less of a satire and more of a total capitulation to the urge to throw morality into a blender. 

While it was first produced in 2011, its totally bonkers, nihilistic tone feels even more apropos for 2019 now that an unhinged, reality TV host is President of the United States. We’re in a post-satire age; rationality and objective truth don’t seem to matter anymore so there’s something about the play’s amoral nature that feels strikingly contemporary and relevant.

Mitchell Cushman directs a taut production and has assembled a superb cast. Though the script calls for some outsized, outlandish and often highly physical comedy, the intimate venue helps ground the performances. There’s room for subtlety when the actors don’t need to project to fill a large auditorium. They rein in their performances so their characters still feel like real people. They avoid the impulse to take it too over the top and veer into caricatures for bigger laughs and the show greatly benefits as a result.

Frank Cox-O’Connell turns in a command performance as both shy teen Jason and his sadistic hand puppet/alter ego Tyrone. His voice and physical mannerisms flip back and forth on a dime for the two characters and he really nails the Jekyll-and-Hyde duality of the role. O’Connell’s performance is hilarious yet he still finds the humanity in this conflicted character and keeps us guessing as to whether this is some form of dissociative identity disorder or an actual Satanic possession. 

Other standouts include Nicole Underhay as Jason’s recently widowed mother whose exasperation is palpable, and Ted Dykstra as Pastor Greg, whom he plays as a smarmy Ned Flanders.

This production also features excellent work by the design team. The set design by Anahita Dehbonehie replicates every church basement in perfect detail and also features an impressive telescoping secondary set of Pastor Greg’s office that slides on and off for scenes in the second act. It’s way sleeker than anything I expected to see on a tiny storefront theatre stage.

Kudos also to Marcus Jamin who not only designed the puppets used in the show but also coached the cast members on how to effectively bring them to life. Tyrone’s movement design really helps turn him into a fully-realized character, especially when executing the intensely physical choreography in the scenes where Jason and Tyrone fight with each other for control (credit to fight director Simon Fon).

Ultimately, Hand to God is a wickedly funny, wild ride of a show and this new production elevates the already outstanding script. If you’re ready to laugh ’til your sides hurt, don’t miss it!

Details:

  • Hand to God is playing from April 24 – May 12, 2019 at Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Avenue) 
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $42.50 (plus HST), Rush tickets $25 (cash only, at the door, 30 minutes before performance starts, subject to availability. No phone reservations)
  • Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com

Photo of Frank Cox-O’Connell by Kristina Ruddick.

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