“I’m not here for the secret of what brings these puppets to life,” rogue agent Maclain declares in the old Puppet Master movie franchise. “I wanna know what makes them die.
In another world, Maclain might have been talking about Tyrone, central character in Robert Askins’ Hand to God, current entry from San Diego Repertory Theatre. Tyrone’s not only a hand puppet himself; he’s the antithesis of everything honorable and right, spewing obscenities, Jesus jokes and interdiction as he unanchors a human ear, breaks a ceiling light and smashes one character’s fingers into obscurity.
He’s either God or the Devil himself depending, spinning a wild yarn about the fine lines that separate right living and the debauchery and repressed trauma that sometimes color it. He’s also the central character in an absolutely despicable excuse for a live production, as formless as it is exhausting in its explicitness.
While obscenity, bloodletting, sexual depictions and vulgar self-indulgence are perfectly acceptable tools for character definition, they also miss the point when they presume that audiences have nothing invested in those tools’ portrayals.
Indeed, Maclain would exult in Tyrone’s hypothetical misfortune.
And so it is with us.
Askins then proceeds to run out of ammo, letting Tyrone take the lead at all costs . . .
Margery, a recently widowed member of a Texas foundational church, has organized a youth puppet club as a means for the propagation of Jesus’ word. Member Timothy is a punch-drunk idiot whose testosterone level eventually gets the better of him in the crafts room, and Margery’s son Jason is Tyrone’s alter-ego (the puppet is attached to Jason’s arm, using it as a perch for his bully pulpit). Jason also has a crush on mild-mannered member Jessica — but Tyrone makes short work of that whole thing, stealing Jason’s thunder as only he knows how.
And that’s really about it. Whenever Margery’s and Jason’s notions of widowhood and repressed trauma rear their heads, there’s devil’s advocate Tyrone, who’s amusing for the first five and a half seconds. Askins then proceeds to run out of ammo, letting Tyrone take the lead at all costs, including those of the story and the subtext.
In the first place, there’s no logistic behind the puppet club, as it has only three members, all of whom are connected to the church. Askins criminally underwrites the role of Pastor Greg, who’s supposedly after Margery’s skirt; from there and to a fault, everybody depicts the various and sundry assaults as far less bloody and painful than they would unfold in real life.
. . . [A]s Pastor Greg, Jason Heil delivers a decidedly substandard performance . . .
Even the audience couldn’t get it right, with its laughter just a little too derisive and its catcalls just a little too loud and premature. I’m mentioning this only because I suspect that several plants were in attendance — if there were, they caught wise to the abject failure of some of the set-ups, finding humor that was over everybody’s head because it simply didn’t exist.
And on and on.
DeAnna Driscoll at least looks the part of Margery, she of the reflexive smile and baffled comportment. Garrett Marshall’s Timothy and Christina L. Flynn’s Jessica are intellectual stringbeans, and the actors seize these moments accordingly. But as Pastor Greg, Jason Heil delivers a decidedly substandard performance, abandoning the lovestruck holyman’s histrionic opportunism. That leaves Caleb Foote’s Jason/Tyrone to salvage any hint of comparative behavoirs — and he/they simply can’t make a silk purse out of this sow’s fatally gangrenous ear.
Robin Roberts’ tripurpose set works in a lot of ways, but its accoutrements are as uninspiring as this story. Same with Charlotte Devaux’s costumes and the rest of the technical effort — Askins’ terrible backdrop yields nothing for the designers to exploit.
In the late 19th century, the French pioneered something called Le Theatre du Grand Guignol, or The Theatre of the Great Puppet — it lasted a little over 60 years and specialized in shows depicting every imaginable cruelty. The distributor of Hand to God mentions this subgenre as it touts its script — but the comparison is overwhelmingly wrongheaded. Grand guignol patrons came from refined societies, whose members might find humor in Tyrone if his dubious take on life at least once yielded to the rightmindedness that birthed it.
Askins and director Sam Woodhouse leave positively no room for that kind of comparison — while Tyrone is his own worst enemy, he’s also everybody’s worst leading man. Absolutely awful.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Oct. 25. Hand to God runs through Nov. 12 at The Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. $42-$68. 619-544-1000, sdrep.org.