Smash Hit “Hand to God” Returns to Short North Stage
Robert Askins’ brilliantly funny and scabrous comedy about demonic possession set in a church’s puppet class, Hand to God, had its regional premiere — after acclaimed Off-Broadway and Broadway runs — at Short North Stage in 2017, directed by Edward Carignan.
In my rave review for this site, I said, “Hand to God never goes for an easy joke without finding a way to subvert it… Carignan’s direction is entirely simpatico with the play: every wild, choked-out laugh comes harder because we understand these characters. It doesn’t judge, but it doesn’t let anybody off the hook either. The cast couldn’t be better at executing this mission of simultaneous empathy and degradation.”
I spoke with Edward Carignan about reuniting (most of) that spectacular cast and why the time was right for the return of the hand puppet Tyrone who speaks in the devil’s voice.
Carignan said, “Initially we weren’t going to have a February show. But so many people asked me about this show: ‘Are you bringing it back?’ ‘I didn’t get to see it and everyone talked about it.’ When we were able to get most of the original cast back, why not remount it? We’re going to run it and hope people come back.”
That production was one of the tell-everyone events of that season. Sometimes, in the dead of an Ohio winter, no one wants to leave their house no matter how good. But Short North Stage’s Hand to God was such a breath of fresh air, audiences flocked into that irreverent blast furnace. It stands as the company’s most successful non-musical play.
“I’ve never seen our space filled with so many kinds of people. [Different] ages, generations, people who love musicals, people who only come see our plays, people who’d never come to our theatre before,” says Carignan. “It was really nice to see all of them in the same room together laughing their asses off. Our original plan was to run it for three weeks — we ended up running it for six, and every single night of that run sold out.”
About the original mounting, Carignan commented, “Rick [Gore] and Peter [Yockel] and I all saw [Hand to God] in New York and loved it but also thought it would be great in a small environment. I think it proved to be a different show in our black box space than it was in a larger auditorium. Jokes landed differently, it got different laugh lines altogether, and it was fun to watch people’s expressions because you’re sitting across from them.”
“On top of that,” Carignan said, “Unlike some camp stuff we do, this show really has a message. I think Robert Askins did a brilliant job of making something hilarious but also sardonic and thoughtful, commenting on family relationships and relationships with religion. We had a lot of religious people come and thought it was hilarious and maybe got some of the ‘in’ humor maybe other people wouldn’t have. It was great to see people you thought might be offended by the show love it.”
This revival reunites Barbara Weetman as Margery, the teacher of the class and mother of protagonist Jason; Jonathan Putnam as Pastor Greg; Chad Goodwin as Jason’s rival Timothy, besotted with Margery; and Kate Lingnofski as Jessica and her puppet Jolene. “I’ve done a lot of shows,” Carignan said, “And I’ve never seen a cast so elated that they get to revive something. These four actors have been talking my ear off for years since we did it the first time.”
A face familiar to Columbus audiences Matthew Sierra joins that tight-knit cast as struggling student Jason and his puppet Tyrone.
“This is his first show with us,” said Carignan. “We had our week of equity auditions in New York this year and saw a lot of people at that. We had a local audition — a more invited call — and I saw 20 to 25 Jasons. Matt was clearly the best.”
“He understood the character as well as Danny [Turek] did in the original cast. They’re a similar type and they’re actually friends in real life,” Carignan chuckled, “So that was really nice; they’re supportive of each other as well. Danny was upset he couldn’t come back, but he’s doing a show in Chicago and I’m happy for him. I hired [Matt] a few months ago so he could start working with the puppets. I was just directing his girlfriend in Pete the Cat for CCT — a very different show — and she said, ‘He’s always walking around the apartment with that damn puppet on! Talking with the puppet, practicing.’”
Those of you returning will notice subtle changes to the set.
“I have refreshed it a bit,” Carignan remarked. “I actually designed the set this time with [original designer Bill Pierson’s] blessing. He just didn’t have time but said, ‘Go ahead, redesign, if there are elements that worked, please use them again.’ I veered a little bit away from what we did originally — we cut the spinning walls because it made the scene changes a little longer than I would have liked. I actually designed it based on the Catholic school that I went to as a little kid. I was able to find some pictures and picked the same wood colors. Now it feels like a memory when I walk in this room.”
I summed up the original run with, ‘Hand to God is a show that will make an audience laugh until the walls creak and like all the best comedies has a core of poignancy. It’s hard to imagine a production of this provocative, intense play better than the one we’re lucky enough to have at Short North Stage. Whether you see a show a week or haven’t seen a play in five years, see this.’ I’d only amend that with, “Even if you’ve seen it before.”
Hand to God runs Feb 7-24 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/702.