Staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), Hand to God makes its highly-anticipated debut in Asia after a triumphant run at London’s West End theatre. Running from 19 April to 6 May 2017 at the KC Arts Centre, the play is a dark comedy that delves into the concept of faith and loss.
Set in a highly religious Texas community, it tells the story of Margery (played by Janice Koh, who won the ST Life! Theatre Award for “Best Actress” in 2003), a widow who struggles to make sense of her faith while grieving the death of her husband.
She busies herself with weekly puppet practices in church, and drags her son Jason – played by Thomas Pang, who was nominated for “Best Actor” at the ST Life! Theatre Awards in 2016 (Tribes) and 2017 (Ophelia) – along with her.
As the play unfolds, we are presented with a disturbing comedy that is riddled with as many sinister moments as it is hilarious. Truly, playwright Robert Askins has crafted this complex conundrum that mirrors the human condition in all its utter complexity.
All we need is…faith?
Hand to God untangles the tricky thing we know as faith, lifting the sheets a little to examine the perennial human condition of making sense of what we know and feel.
Whilst set against a backdrop of a church, the play raises questions not unique to any one religion. Rather, Hand to God probes at the universally understood concept of faith, or the loss of it.
For mother and son, the weight of their loss becomes unbearable, and almost all at once, they lose their souls – to rage, pain, and regrettable acts.
The play’s title is telling. As a phrase, “hand to god” is an oath one takes when they want others to believe them. It’s also a likely reference to Tyrone, being a sock puppet, who gradually grows to become the voice of Jason’s rage.
At one point in the play, confronted by his mother, Jason and Tyrone meld into one. The play teases about Tyrone being a Satanic, demon-possessed puppet, but the audience suddenly catches a glimpse of how thin the line that divides is: at which point do our demons become us, and we our demons?
Hold up…isn’t this play about a sock puppet?
It is poignant that the playwright uses a sock puppet as a visual representation of Jason’s troubled inner voice. Tyrone’s opening monologue speaks of the creation of the ‘devil’ by individuals, so as to put blame, to suggest a reason for the bad things they do.
We watch as Margery’s weekly puppet lessons, originally intended as a wholesome distraction for son and mother in the wake of their loss, escalates into a minefield that calls into question the role of belief and the church in the context of a tight-knit, religious community.
Koh’s portrayal of Margery’s internal turmoil was convincing, and as her character is pushed to breaking point, deftly adds another layer to her performance.
As Jason increasingly acts out his confusion and grief through his monologues, we witness how his Id-dominated side struggles to break out. His bottled up emotions are unleashed in growing doses as Tyrone grows stronger.
Pang’s performance, alternating between the unruly puppet Tyrone and the well-mannered Jason, left the audience very much in awe.
Strong supporting cast
Jason’s crush, Jessica, is played by actress, singer, and voiceover artist Ann Lek, who also voices Jolene the puppet. In Hand to God, Lek held her own, and embellished her character with charm and likability, portraying the different facets of Jessica with ease.
Gavin Yap plays Timothy, or Timmy, succeeding making the school bully and playboy almost charming and endearing. Daniel Jenkins plays Pastor Greg, imbuing the character with such vulnerability, an especially necessary contrast to the character’s true intentions.
Questioning the human condition
So what do we know about loss, and how to deal with it? How far does grief take us, and what does love in a time of loss actually look like? If faith can help Margery through this time of loss, is it then good?
Her missing her late husband also mirrors that which she has lost – faith in the institution of marriage. As director Guy Unsworth aptly puts, the human condition is examined in Hand to God, along with our need for order, and how repressed desires are handled.
The emotional trauma of loss and the question of faith was so cleverly conveyed by cast and crew alike, that at times beneath the laughter, Hand to God felt less like a play and more like an honest reckoning of one’s emotional state of mind.
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