Michael Doherty, left, and Carolina Sanchez get wild in the West Coast premiere of “Hand to God.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Michael Doherty, left, and Carolina Sanchez get wild in the West Coast premiere of “Hand to God.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Funny, foul-mouthed puppet stirs ‘Hand to God’

Whoever would have thought a simple sock puppet could be so vicious, so frightening, so obscene, so insidious?

In Robert Askins’ Broadway hit “Hand to God,” now in a Berkeley Repertory Theatre West Coast premiere, the aggressive, gravelly-voiced puppet Tyrone is the alter ego of forlorn teenager Jason (the hands-down brilliant comic actor Michael Doherty).

Tyrone, who apparently has actual teeth, and sharp ones, too, is in the process of subsuming poor Jason’s socially awkward persona, freely expressing Jason’s every forbidden thought and ultimately committing every illicit act that Jason might imagine.

Jason can do nothing much more than protest, weakly.

The lonely pastor at Jason’s church (David Kelly, wonderful as a sort of skewed Ned Flanders who routinely intones, “You have a blessed day!”), and Jason’s recently widowed mother, Margery (Laura Odeh), who runs a puppet theater workshop at the church (it’s a thing: some churches teach Bible stories through puppetry), agree that Tyrone may be possessed by the devil.

But, as Jason’s schoolmate Jessica (played with a lovely simplicity by Carolina Sanchez) wonders, could it be Jason who’s possessed?

In the mix is bad boy Timothy (an amusingly swaggering, leering Michael McIntire), the third kid in the puppetry class.

What happens between him and Margery is a showstopper, as is a scene in which Tyrone and Jessica’s Miss Piggy-like puppet do unspeakable things while the two puppeteers earnestly converse.

This is a dark comedy indeed, and director David Ivers (who so brilliantly helmed “One Man, Two Guvnors” for Berkeley Rep two seasons ago) neatly balances the farcical elements with the disquieting sense of menace, keeping the action going at a rollicking pitch throughout.

But the core of the play, the playwright has said, is meant to be the relationship between Jason and Margery: Since Jason’s father’s death, mother and son have become emotionally disconnected from each other, each fairly deranged by grief.

That important relationship doesn’t quite come through, mainly because Odeh plays Margery so artificially perky, so over the top, from the very beginning, that she never seems quite real in the same way that the other characters do.

Still, Odeh nails plenty of exquisitely funny moments, and the ensemble works together seamlessly on Jo Winiarski’s cleverly detailed set.

Sanchez, and especially Doherty, prove to be adept at manipulating their hand puppets (designed by Amanda Villalobos) in ways that make them seem dangerously, hilariously alive.

Hand to God
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes March 19
Tickets: $29 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org
Amanda VillalobosBerkeley Repertory TheatreDavid IversDavid KellyHand to GodJo WiniarskiLaura OdehMichael DohertyRobert AskinsTheater

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