Director Christina Baldwin has a big challenge with “Hand to God,” opening Friday at the Jungle Theater: One of her actors is a brainless jerk.
That actor is Riley O’Toole’s hand, which wears a puppet named Tyrone for much of Robert Askins’ ribald comedy (get ready for puppet sex). Although teenager Jason (played by O’Toole) nominally operates Tyrone, they are often at odds. In fact, Jason seems unable to control his own appendage, to the extent that an exorcism is discussed.
Maybe the hand is possessed? Or maybe Jason and the other characters — his grieving mother, an unstable classmate, a horny pastor and Jason’s sympathetic friend — have so much trouble expressing their feelings that they reach out for whatever’s nearby?
A Tony Award nominee in five categories, including best play, “Hand to God” was the nation’s most-produced play of the 2016-17 theater season. It’s getting its Twin Cities premiere at the Jungle.
Jungle artistic director Sarah Rasmussen loves how the play, set in and around a church-school class in puppetry, uses humor to reveal characters who are unsure what to do with their own feelings. She quickly thought of Baldwin — who made her Jungle directing debut with last season’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” — to take the reins.
“Christina is one of the funniest directors I know but she brings so much heart and groundedness to the work,” says Rasmussen. “Many directors might find the funny in the play, but she adds this really poignant connection between Jason and his mom and their community.”
Having acted opposite a puppet two years ago in the Jungle’s “The Oldest Boy” and having worked with puppets on the Minnesota Orchestra/In the Heart of the Beast’s “Hansel and Gretel,” Baldwin also knows her way around what Twin Cities puppeteer Michael Sommers calls “constructed actors.” That is, puppets.
“They can express so much, in a literal and a nonliteral way at the same time, so it’s this beautiful expansion of the imagination,” says Baldwin.
O’Toole is actually a former student of Sommers. Much of the comedy — and terror — of “Hand to God” comes from the audience being aware that Jason seems to operate Tyrone but that the puppet may want to harm his human host. Their twisted dynamic explodes in a scene where the two of them engage in fisticuffs.
“Riley O’Toole is doing an amazing job of cracking it open,” says Baldwin. “There is a sense that he is just Jason, and then just Tyrone, and it’s not until the end of the scene that you realize this one actor has done an epic monologue.”
So, is Baldwin ever tempted to talk to the hand? She says the actors occasionally find themselves addressing Tyrone, but she avoids it.
“I always direct to the person who is managing the puppet,” says Baldwin. “But definitely, I sometimes have specific notes for Tyrone, the puppet, and for Jason, the live actor.”
Working on “Hand to God” has made Baldwin want to explore puppeteering more. Being a performer in music and opera helped her understand the tempo and technique of working with puppets, as did her experience of being onstage mom to a puppet in “The Oldest Boy” at the Jungle.
“The interesting thing was how much emotion you bank in these puppets — my emotions, in interacting with that puppet as my child,” says Baldwin. “That puppet contained a lot of things for me, a lot of what my character needed and hoped for. You start to have this very tender relationship.
“A great puppeteer can make different expressions for a puppet but the puppet itself has a lovely neutralness in its level of emotion. In that, you find that everyone else gets to put their emotion in it. You read what you want to on it. You see the emotion you want to see.”
In addition to the play’s outrageous humor, those emotions drew Baldwin to “Hand to God.”
“We each have in us some way to try to get some distance, to try to figure out how to get through something difficult,” she says. “That’s a very human need and this show displays it in a very epic way. At the core of it, there’s this real hurt and that’s what makes it interesting and fun, when you see the real earnestness of these lovely, weird creatures.”
“Hand to God” marks the second year in a row that a Baldwin-directed piece has closed out a Jungle season. Performances had to be added to meet the demand for “Miss Bennet.” In fact, five of the past seven Jungle shows have added performances to their runs. As the theater transitions to a new schedule — previous seasons mirrored the calendar year but the next season will open in September with “Little Women” — the hope is that Baldwin’s “Hand to God” will make it six of eight.