“Hand to God” a fabulously irreverent, wonderfully uncomfortable comedy

Kaylub Sinclair (left) and Alexa Steponchev (right) feature in ppl r ppl's production of "Hand to God," running at The Refinery from Nov. 4-6 and 10-13, 2022. (Supplied / Photo courtesy of Ppl r Ppl Productions)

In their director’s notes, Ricardo Alvarado asks “How do you admit that you’re broken and how do you even begin to ask for help when shame and guilt won’t even let you catch your breath?” 

In the midst of Ppl r Ppl Productions’ playful and wildly uncomfortable scenes of Hand to God lies a painful and heart-breaking commentary on grief and suffering. The play follows Jason (Kaylub Sinclair), a teenager who is part of a puppet group run by his mother Margery (Clare Middleton) at his local church. As they both struggle with the death of Jason’s father, Jason’s puppet Tyrone begins to have a mind of his own, leading all to the conclusion that he has been possessed by the devil. Profanity, humour, and shock combine to bring this strange but incredible story to life. 

A large crowd braved a blizzard for the Saturday night performance to giggle and howl at the insanity on the stage. The responses were strong and constantly shifted among hilarity, discomfort, and outright amazement. It has a rightly-deserved explicit content warning, but the vulgarity functions as a conduit for the narrative rather than existing for its own sake. The audience seemed to accept and embrace the irreverence rather than feeling offended. 

The audience response is indicative of the brilliance of the play. It invites the audience to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths of human existence. The discomfort with all the feelings that are natural to humanity – grief, longing, sexual desire, release – is translated into discomfort in the audience. This is a brilliant use of vulgarity by playwright Robert Askins. He masterfully shocks and laughs the audience into an uncomfortable position, and it is the type of discomfort that is necessary for growth. 

The cast is brilliant with contributions from Alexa Steponchev as Jessica and Jolene the busty puppet, the love interests of Jason and Tyrone respectively, and Daniel Taillon as Pastor Greg. Steponchev is fun and brilliant in their puppetry and Taillon is fabulous as the awkward but charming pastor.

Clare Middleton as Margery is captivating in her range from grieving widow to discovering sexual freedom, and Jenna Berenbaum is astounding as the teenaged Timmy who is in love with Margery. The dynamic between Berenbaum and Middleton on stage is as impressive as it is unsettling.

The prize for most notable performance, however, must be given to Kaylub Sinclair, who seamlessly transitions between Tyrone and Jason. The aggressive and harsh character of Tyrone constantly berates the mild-mannered Jason, and the full conversations between the two characters convince the audience that it is not only one person on the stage. 

The fantastic performances entertain and captivate while presenting a fun and silly, dark and disturbing story. Despite the fantasy of it all, it feels real, and it lifts a curtain to reveal to the audience the grittiness and darkness that exists within humanity. This play is chilling and hilarious, and it is a must-see. 

Hand to God runs until Nov. 13 at The Refinery. Tickets are available through www.livefive.ca or at (306) 653-5191.

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