'Hand To God': Hanging Out With An Unhinged, Satanical Hand Puppet At Theaterworks

Editor’s note: TheaterWorks has added a performance to “Hand To God.” The final performance will now be Sunday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m.

‘Hand to God” is a harrowing, hilarious, hand-wringing comedy with tragic elements about a young man whose life is changed — and endangered — by an unhinged, demonically possessed hand puppet named Tyrone.

TheaterWorks is presenting Robert Askin’s outrageous social satire July 20 through Aug. 26. The theater is self-rating the play “R, for Rude, Raunchy and Riotously Funny.”

“Hand to God” was a hit off Broadway in 2011, 2012 and 2014, then ran for nine months on Broadway in 2015-16. Now the play has been storming the regional theaters around the country. Pittsburgh’s City Theater Company had a successful production in 2016. It was directed by Tracy Brigden, a longtime friend of TheaterWorks, who most recently directed “Midsummer” for the theater two summers ago. TheaterWorks enlisted Brigden to direct “Hand to God” in Hartford. The TheaterWorks production also features three of the same actors who did the play in Pittsburgh two years ago, plus several of the same designers.

It also has the same Tyrone, so look out!

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Disarmingly adorable, the foul-mouthed, unruly, irrepressible Tyrone forms an unusual bond with a devoted churchgoing Texan youth named Jason. In this bizarre puppet/puppeteer relationship, it’s fair to ask who’s manipulating whom. At TheaterWorks (as he was at City Theater), Jason — and by extension Tyrone — is played by New York actor Nick LaMedica, who does some puppetry work for his father’s company Jungle John Entertainment in Delaware.

We sat down for an animated discussion with Tyrone, while LaMedica hovered humbly behind him.

What have you been up to in the two years between doing these two productions of “Hand to God”?

Mostly living in a box in Pittsburgh. I’ve just been waiting, thinking about the play a lot.

Could you describe “Hand to God”?

You have this young man named Jason and his mother Margery, who’ve recently lost someone who’s very dear to them. There’s a lot of pain and confusion, and they haven’t dealt with any of it. Mourning is tough. One of the ways they begin to deal with it is through a puppet ministry at their church.

That’s where I come in. This wound has been festering in them for six months. I take it upon myself to take over. I see myself as the voice of all the things you wish you could say but can’t.

This is not soft and fuzzy puppets. People are dealing with some real shit.

Is the play very physically demanding?

I have an amazing team of stunt doubles.

But, yes, I have to do a lot. The play has a lot of action. It’s not like a movie, where you can say ‘Cut!” I’ve got to stay out there. It’s a constant thing for Nick, too. (LaMedica shrugs.)

I get to play Lou Costello doing “Who’s on First?” I get to sing some Marvin Gaye. It’s very demanding. But what’s important is: Does my performance have legs?

Any big changes between the two productions?

Each time you do it, you see it through a different lens. But a lot has happened in the world since we did this in Pittsburgh. Let’s just say there’s a reason I’m orange.

Did you vote in the election?

I’m 2 years old. I can’t cast my hand in the process. But this play is calling people out on what they’re saying and doing.

How do you get along with the other puppets?

My puppet friend Jolene is a pleasure to work with. Wink! I’ve been working on my wink. But I can’t wink, so I have to say “Wink!”

What’s your acting process?

Nick and I do very little rehearsing in the space. We have to arrive prepared to work with the rest of the cast. For what he and I do, mostly it’s Nick alone in his apartment. He’s not a trained puppeteer. There’s a lot of trial, and a lot more error. We ask a lot of him. (LaMedica shrugs again.)

What are your dream roles?

“To be or not to be, that is the question…”

You’re so expressive with just your arms and face.

I don’t expect the audience to see everything, but I’m keeping as much detail as possible for the people I’m working with in the play. This play was written for an intimate space. It feeds into the fear, the vitality, the energy!

Who does your hair?

Thanks for asking. Stephanie Shaw is the puppet designer, and Tracy Christiansen designed our costumes. It does have this nice little motion to it.

Where are you originally from?

Michael’s crafts store. Not Hobby Lobby.

HAND TO GOD runs July 20 through Aug. 26 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. (and 7 p.m. on Aug. 26). Tickets are $45 to $70. 860-527-7838, theaterworks.org.

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