As expected, Kansas City’s Unicorn Theatre pushed the limits with new plays not seen in the metro before, and this selection, “Hand to God,” opens the season with a hilarious comedy, superbly cast, beautifully staged, laser-accurate timing, dynamically sounded, and craftily conceived and directed.
“Hand to God” challenges the audience with good verses bad ideology. The Devil/puppet maintains that we create saviors to save us from our own indiscretion. We act out and choose devilish thoughts and deeds to find satisfaction. Then, when those deeds lead us too far from the “good” path, we blame the Devil, look to a savior, and seek repentance–at least for a little while, until the next flight of evil thoughts misleads us. But, the premise is that the evil is wherein lies the pleasures of life. All these thoughts and ideas play out so well in Robert Askins’ comedy, “Hand to God”
Credit Producing Artistic Director, Cynthia Levin, for hand-picking the best possible cast for this production. She led with Bob Linebarger, an actor/director who can find creative characterizations in whatever parts assigned. In this case, he cast as Jason and his evil puppet alter-ego, Tyrone, a.k.a, the Devil. And this devil puppet has teeth–really. He bites and draws blood. Linebarger masterfully changes from the mild-mannered teenage church puppet maker to the Devil within the twinkling of an eye. His mastery with the puppet and to vocal demands of the part display Linebarger’s depth of talent, comedic timing, and range as an actor. He most certainly controls the main focus of the show–well he and his hand-puppet.
As the angry, sex-starved widow and Jason’s mother, Margery, Heidi Van gives probably her most outrageously funny characters for the past several seasons. From her first moments on stage, the audience feels the tension of the young widow and just knows from her costumes, demeanor, live delivery and body language that storm clouds are festering up for a real violent torrent. Van is funny and delightful throughout, especially in scenes with Matthew Lindblom and Mark Liby.
As for Matt Lindblom, he presents another of his hectic characters where he must blend his character development with a physicality and exhaustive performance where his nuances, gestures, movement, and character require him to be the uncontrollable sexually driven angry misunderstood teenager. Lindblom reaches new heights in his comedic performances.
When a comedy contains a church basement setting and a single pastor, rest assured the reason for that setting and pastor means the pastor faces unholy challenges as the play develops. Again Levin found the perfect actor for the ready to fail his vows pastor in Mark Liby. The Pastor Greg’s not so pure interest in Margery unveils it self from the first encounter and continues to build sexual tension and laughs throughout. Liby displays his slapstick skills in most scenes. And, when slapstick is not needed, his line delivery and expressions bring the laughs. This is one of Liby’s funniest performances of the last several years. Watching him teeter between his controlled man of God and his out of control pastor of lust creates lots of laughs.
The last character, Jessica/Jolene, played by Mariem Diaz, can best be described as the out of control mad puppeteer of live puppet sex on stage. She knows no bounds and delivers up her goodies to the Devil in a scene that cannot be accurately described without offending those missionary-style purists. In a small but outrageously funny character, Diaz delivers a strong characterization. Diaz makes her third appearance on the Unicorn stages after appearing in two other very successful plays, “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo,” and “Mr. Burns.” In “Hand to God,” her part does not allow a lot of character development until one major sex scene toward the end where her character breaks through with use of puppets to find the crux of some problems. Her performance is charming and funny. How she maintained a character without breaking when working with Linebarger shows her professionalism.
“Hand to God” is a comedic masterpiece. The cast, artistic staff, and production staff needed to be involved with each step to create the on stage magic. The artistic staff is led by Tanya Brown, stage manager; Emily Swenson and Sarah White, co-scenic designers; Paul Mesmer, puppet direction; Mike Horner and Elizabeth McManus, puppet design and construction; Alex Perry, lighting designer; Jae Shanks, sound designer; Leah Mazur, costume designer; Bret Engle, properties designer. The production staff is Emily Sukolics, production assistant; Gregory Chafin, technical director; Alyson Germinder, dramaturg; Lauren Colston an Elizabeth McManus, production interns; Manon Haliburton, sound board operator.
“Hand to God” runs through Oct. 2 at The Unicorn Theatre. For more information, calendar dates, times, times, prices, ticket sales, check out the website.