I have to say that when it comes to art, I categorically reject the idea of “trigger warnings,” which is simply another term for censorship. I prefer my art nasty and impolitic, like a middle finger flown at Queen Victoria. Art does not thrive in a safe space, and it isn’t supposed to be innocuously pleasing, like eggshell paint. Art, as Kafka said, should be “an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
Which brings me, of course, directly to the subject of puppets — or, rather, puppets and religious hypocrisy and emotional blockage, and what happens when repressed desires and stifled grief are granted vicarious expression through an evil sock-monster named Tyrone.
Penned by playwright Robert Askins, Hand to God — now at Oregon Contemporary Theatre under the direction of Brian Haimbach — is a satire in the scathing tradition of Jonathan Swift and Martin McDonagh. Instead of Lilliput or Ebbing, however, the play is set in a small Texas town, among a handful of wildly unhappy members of a conservative Christian ministry.
Recently widowed, Margery (Kari Boldon Welch) has been tapped by Pastor Greg (Tom Wilson) to run the puppet club, a ploy sometimes used by fundamentalist congregations to teach Biblical principles to the kids. Among the amateur puppeteers are Margery’s sheepish son, Jason (Connor French); Jessica (Meg Schenk), Jason’s silent crush; and bad boy Timothy (Ben Lawrence), who has the hots for teacher — as does pastor. Everyone, it seems, is pretty salty here; you could cut the sexual tension with a sock puppet.
The tone is set from the get-go, as Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, opens the play with a monologue that subverts the Old Testament creation story, substituting original sin with an anthropological view of the “devil” as a convenient excuse for people’s bad behavior. In Tyrone’s vision of social control, man is born free and is everywhere in chains, thanks to the brute politics of group cohesion.
From here, all hell breaks loose. As Tyrone gets increasingly lippy and confrontational, he begins to take possession of Jason, spewing profanity-laced blasphemies that sound a lot like the truth. Margery, unhinged by her husband’s death and Timothy’s advances, gives up all pretense of being a proper Christian woman. Eventually, ears get bitten off and puppets rut with abandon, as their human handlers stand by awkwardly.
It is, in short, absolutely thrilling, and OCT does Askins’ play the ultimate honor by assembling a cast that is across-the-board excellent. From conception to execution, this is a difficult production, requiring an admirable level of courage and, oddly, tasteful confidence; in lesser hands, such outré comedy might come off as merely crude, and OCT should be applauded for having the sophistication to pull this off, and to pull it off so well.
A special nod should go out to occasional EW contributor Rachael Carnes, who trained the first-time puppeteers, and whose expert guidance puts the show over the top. The puppet sex scene might be my favorite local-theater moment of the year so far (one poor gentleman in the front row averted his eyes the entire time — yes, it’s that good or bad, depending on your temperament).
It should go without saying that there is nothing gratuitous about all this bad behavior on stage. Quite the opposite. As with all great satires, Hand to God functions as a kind of necessary emetic, a purging of hypocrisy and repression through a chaotic application of unadorned and unfiltered outrage. And beneath all this grotesquery beats the heart of an angry moralist, as Askins gleefully trashes the niceties that hold us hostage and pervert our complicated hearts.
It’s telling that it takes a shitheel like Tyrone, the evil puppet, to shake up the play’s moral foundation, what with his sexual bravado and foul-mouthed rants and generally abusive behavior revealing the undercurrent of hypocrisy in that conservative Texas town. Unchecked, however, Tyrone threatens to swamp the works in a bacchanal of lust, bigotry and violence.
A new balance, in the end, must be established, because the sad, impotent boy and the malignant bully puppet are, indeed, one and the same.
Hand to God runs through June 9 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre; tickets and info at 541-465-1506 or octheatre.org.