Review: Hand To God by Singapore Repertory Theatre

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Parents, please don’t take your kids to see this show, thinking that it’s as innocent as Sesame Street. It’s not. Robert Askins’ Hand To God is anything but godly, and makes it Singaporean debut with the Singapore Repertory Theatre at last, and will overturn everything you thought you knew about puppets and instill you with a deep fear of your inner demons…or perhaps even the devil himself.

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Set in Texas, recently widowed Sunday school teacher Margery (Janice Koh) is still reeling from the death of her husband, but still conducts a Christian puppetry workshop in a church overseen by Pastor Greg (Daniel Jenkins), attended by some troubled teenagers. These include her introverted and grieving son, Jason (Thomas Pang), his love interest Jessica (Ann Lek) and rebellious troublemaker Timothy (Gavin Yap). Margery’s husband’s death has a severe impact on both herself and Jason, and both react violently in the wake of it. Jason in particular, has crafted a grotesque sock puppet Tyrone and speaks through it, later becoming increasingly foul-mouthed and violent as Margery neglects Jason. Eventually, the characters find themselves confronted by a demonic and fully realized Tyrone (who claims to be Satan), their shepherd on a deeply disturbing, bloody journey into the psyche of both mother and son, and how grief can lead to some seriously dark moments, ample factors for the devil himself to pay a visit.

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Susannah Henry’s innocent and closed set design pokes fun at all the naive Christian stereotypes: clichéd motivational posters quoting Jesus, makeshift certificates congratulating kids for a job well done, and basically, a plethora of paraphernalia promoting sunshine, happiness and love. This is not the case for long, as the devil’s touch completely corrupts the building, transforming in a split second to a satanic dungeon filled with graffiti vandalizing the posters and changing their meaning, helped in part by Lim Woan Wen’s unsettling flood of red light and Ctrl Fre@k’s (Lee Yew Jin) evocative sounds. Together, the set easily flowed between a heart-to-heart talk in a car and an oneiric bedroom where puppets come to life.

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Thomas Pang wearing a forearm guard to show just how much effort goes into puppeteering Tyrone, making for a performance worthy of a Best Actor nomination.

Hand To God is not a play for the faint of heart and gives new meaning to the term dark comedy, with both darkness and comedy in equal amounts. Despite seeming like a bit of a gimmick, the presence of demonic sock puppet Tyrone is a perfect tool to encapsulate the black comedy and absurdity of the entire situation. Under tutelage of the accomplished Paper Monkey Theatre, Thomas Pang handles Tyrone confidently, the troubled and shy Jason acting as an effective foil and contrast to Tyrone’s vulgar id-driven personality, and Pang’s skilled ventriloquism is put to good use here, making the demonic Tyrone feel genuinely threatening and a completely different character, constantly moving, attentive and even ‘listening in’ on conversations. Tyrone isn’t all blood and black magic though, and Pang manages to simultaneously wield him to deliver most of the play’s comic moments, shouting wildly inappropriate insults at the other characters. Surprisingly, Tyrone also has a vulnerable side to him – his virginity, which is also played for laughs and gives good reason for the warning of “rude and noisy puppets” the play comes with once he meets his counterpart in Jessica’s own foxy, buxom puppet, making for one of the funniest, awkward scenes in the entire play.

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Hand to God is unafraid to go down the most horrifying paths and in making shock decisions, gleefully indulging in toeing the fine line between pleasure and pain as extreme means of handling grief. Daniel Jenkins plays the sleazy pastor to perfection, giving us shudders as he expresses his darker intentions to Janice Koh’s Margery, and fight choreographer Lim Yu Beng does a good job of orchestrating realistic and flinch-inducing fight scenes. Janice Koh is in top form here as her grief takes her on a sexually charged turn, transforming her into the forbidden Sunday school teacher fantasy come to life for Gavin Yap’s punk Timothy. Feeding off each other’s rage and frustrations, the two have a disturbingly potent onstage chemistry that allows them to dive into the blackest shades of grey morality, and Koh in particular gives an explicit performance that will certainly have audience members never being able to quite see her in the same light ever again.

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Hand To God is a brutally honest look at how grief can weaken one’s spirit and completely invert a person’s character, leading them down a dangerous road of self-destruction and affecting not just them, but the people around as well.

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Playing up the blood, gore and horror elements not just for entertainment but also to reflect the extremities of grief, Hand to God’s success is anchored in its polished yet unadulterated performances from its exceptional cast drawing out every nuance from its deliciously dark script with an important message that will enlighten even the heaviest of hearts. No need to call for an exorcist; this play will scare the living daylights out of you while convincing you to be extra wary of your child’s next craft project.

Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Performance attended on 22/4/17.

Hand to God (R18) plays at the KC Arts Centre from 19 April to 6 May. Tickets available from SISTIC

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