To launch its 22nd season, Boise Contemporary Theater may have chosen its most controversial play to date.
When the Tony Award-winning Hand to God opened on Broadway in 2015, it provoked some audience members to walk out but even more notable were the number of standing ovations and Tony nominations it received, including Best Play. Critics called the new play by American playwright Robert Askins profane, profound and, as The New York Times wrote, "a weird mirror of our unsettling times."
Hand to God is about a young man named Jason who, with his mother, starts a so-called "puppet ministry" in the basement of a church in their Texas town. Things go to hell when Jason's hand puppet Tyrone becomes possessed by an—maybe "the"—evil spirit..
BCT Artistic Associate and Education Director Dwayne Blackaller plays Jason and Tyrone; and BCT/Idaho Shakespeare Festival veteran Veronica Von Tobel portrays Jessica—a budding romantic interest for Jason—and Jolene, a buxom sock puppet.
With five performances weekly through Saturday, Nov. 4, Blackaller and Von Tobel sat down and talked about Hand to God.
I saw Hand to God shortly after it opened in New York. There were gasps from the audience, and a few people left at intermission.
Blackaller: What's extraordinary is that it tackles some pretty exciting subject matter in a surprisingly funny way. But it's certainly the kind of play that gives me pause when I think about my mom coming to see it.
Von Tobel: I told my mom, "It has adult humor," and she said, "Well, we're all adults here."
Blackaller: When you see the play, you'll meet our puppets—hand puppets—and there's a particular puppet named Tyrone. Tyrone is... well, he's a forceful personality.
Blackaller: No,this is far beyond that. There are a couple of things the puppets do in this play that will elicit some interesting reactions from the audience. Tyrone may or may not be the devil, and there's a big question about what that means for our story.
How did you find your puppets' voices?
Blackaller: Well, Jason is (Blackaller lowered his voice to a near-whisper)... contemplative and quiet and a bit afraid. Tyrone is... (Blackaller raised his voice and began speaking like an old-time gangster) Tyrone has a strong Id, you know? He wants to burn the world down, you know? Am I angry? I don't think so. I'm a bit.... a bit twitchy, you know? I know what I want.
Von Tobel: Jolene sounds like a woman you would pick up at a bar in the Atlanta airport.
Even though this play was written in 2011, the subject matter has become more relevant to how we struggle to find appropriate ways to communicate with one another. We all have demons, but some are being unleashed, which seems to be a big part of the national conversation.
Blackaller: I think Tyrone would probably have voted for our current president just to see what would happen. I think that's a fair assumption.
Tyrone's a disruptor.
Blackaller: He's the real Disruptor in Chief, not the President.
Von Tobel: If you've seen the play, you know the ending is pretty powerful. After one of our recent performances, our director, Matthew Cameron Clark, told us, "We should just call it a day." You won't forget this ending anytime soon. You'll be thinking a lot about it, and that's what every good play will hopefully do.
Blackaller: For all this play's craziness, outlandish comedy and challenging subject matter, for sure, but I think the ending of the play is improbably uplifting. There's something really hopeful built into this catastrophe that you'll witness on stage.