Curtain Critic: High fives all around for Stray Cat Theatre’s ‘Hand to God’

Stray Cat Theatre’s set for “Hand of God” starts out colorful and sweet, but gradually darkens to reflect the shriveling sanity of its characters. (Courtesy of John Groseclose)

For a horror-inspired story about possession, “Hand to God” brings forth more bursts of laughter than jump scares.

Then again, its use of goofy puppets to symbolize family issues and pent-up sexual frustration might have something to do with the uproarious laughter it inspires.

Despite the religious imagery the title evokes, it would be a mistake to see this play with your local pastor. It’s as lewd and raunchy as it is hilarious and well-done.

“Hand to God” takes place in a church basement. Although its bright, vibrant colors, childish posters, and adorable puppets may lead one to believe it’s for children, a group of adolescents in the midst of puberty come here every week to create puppets for church shows.

Once again, Stray Cat Theatre demonstrates impressive mastery of the scenic arts. The set, which starts out colorful and sweet, gradually darkens to reflect the shriveling sanity of its characters. Spoiler alert: at the end of the first act, a puppet named Tyrone, lovingly crafted and obsessively worn by lead Jason (Eric Zaklukiewicz), gets possessed by the devil.

The Phoenix stage bursts in a bright light show to represent the possession before finally calming down during intermission. As audience members stand up to get drinks or stretch their legs, calm, stone-faced stage assistants stroll on to the stage and paint “666,” “Kill Yourself,” and other offensive messages all over the set. They even draw Xs over the eyes of various toys scattered around the scene.

One of the play’s most interesting plots is about the intersection between religion and sexuality. Jason struggles to reconcile his budding maturity with his controlling mother’s patronizing orders and emotional manipulation.

The play is as well-executed as it is outrageous. Every one of its actors gives their all to their role, making sure that audience members are completely wrapped up in the story, no matter how absurd or farcical it can get.

Elyse Wolf gives a complex performance as Jason’s mother, Margery. Despite her conservative fashion and indulgent doting on her son, Margery is a high-strung and fiery vixen, with a sadistic dominatrix lurking behind her sweet Christian facade.

Wolf goes all-out in her performance, making audiences hoot with laughter as she rips open her blouse on stage, orders her student to rip up a poster (and then eat it), and finally flings her legs to the sky during a particularly notable sex scene.

One of the most enjoyable performances was from ASU student Vaughn Sherman, who commanded the stage as the rebellious and misogynistic Timothy. Despite his character’s blatant hatred and poor attitude, Sherman infused charm and hilarity into his role, making him oddly likable in spite of all the horrible ways he spoke to his fellow students, especially Jessica (Michelle Chin).

Although Jessica doesn’t get much screen time, she makes up for lost time in the second act, when she tries to seduce Tyrone with Jolene, a well-endowed puppet of their own.

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The two had wild puppet sex, in which Jessica and Jason violently rubbed their arms together to simulate a night of unrestrained lust between their Tyrone and Jolene.

In one of her most memorable moments, Michelle Chin delivers the most adorable, “Are you fucking kiddin’ me?” I’ve ever heard, and that line alone was enough to make the whole audience burst forth in a flurry of laughter.

Although the raunchiness of “Hand to God” made me gasp and shake my head in embarrassment, just as often as I covered my face, I was run out of breath with laughter at its hilarity.

The show’s technical elements were perfect, from blood spurting out of Timothy’s face when Tyrone bit his ear off, to well-timed songs from the Exorcist and Jaws.

The Stray Cat Theatre troupe’s perfect execution, from acting to production, deserves a generous hand of applause.

“Hand of God” runs through Feb. 25 at Phoenix Theatre, located at McDowell Road and Central Avenue. Tickets are available for purchase online.

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