Don’t let the brightly-coloured felt puppet on the poster fool you, the Guild’s latest play is not a show for children.
The first sign of the adult themes in Hand to God comes when director Brian Fidler talks about the coaches he brought in to help the cast prepare.
There was dance choreographer Allyn Walton who worked as the show’s “intimacy choreographer” to plan out the sex scenes, as well as fight choreographer Anton Solomon.
“He’s a master fight choreographer who can teach you how to slap someone in the face and grab someone by the nuts,” Fidler said.
“He’s really got some pretty specific skills.”
Hand to God is the story of a group of teens who spend their time building puppets in a church basement when one of the puppets becomes possessed by the devil.
“Things come to a boil and people’s animalistic urges really just bust through,” Fidler said.
“People end up doing things that are really perhaps socially unacceptable and also against the grain of what you would think a good Christian should do.”
The play, by Robert Askins, has been performed both on and off Broadway and received multiple Tony Award nominations.
The show is not recommend for children, Fidler said.
While characters aren’t actually shown doing the nasty on stage, “we see the lead-up to it, and it’s a little bit rough,” he said.
“So I made sure that I brought in someone who could be there to help almost choreograph these scenes so that the actors felt safe.”
Loughran Thorson-Looysen plays the lead character Jason as well as his possessed puppet, Tyrone.
“We did the group read-through all together and throughout the beginning of act one, all I could think of was, ‘Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? This is dirty,’” the 18-year-old said.
As the play progresses though, Thorson-Looysen said he realized the story was about more than being raunchy.
“If you’re listening and looking closely you can notice how each of these characters’ experiences tie into the grand plot of the show. It’s a really deep play that is masked by a whole lot of dirty, raunchy comedy,” he said.
Fidler said Hand to God is a commentary on grief and loss. Both Jason and his mother are dealing with the loss of Jason’s father.
“Because he’s having so much trouble expressing his grief, he makes this puppet that is able to say things that he can’t say and sort of act out his more base feelings and anger,” he said. “She, his mom, she does something that’s really inappropriate and that’s because she’s struggling, she’s repressing her grief as well.”
Fidler has experience with puppets. He’s done multiple puppet shows with his own theatre company, Ramshackle, as well as a few particularly dirty ones when he was the director of the Varietease burlesque show. (He said he’s still a little nervous that his kids might some day find archival footage of those ones.)
When it came to putting the cast together, Fidler said he “was really looking for a willingness and an openness to try this,” not necessarily actors who had extensive experience working with puppets.
Adrian Woodhouse, who plays Timothy, got some basic stage combat training from Wood Street School’s music, art and drama (MAD) program and later when he went to musical theatre college in Ontario, but said he hasn’t used it much.
Now, he’s in four of the more physical scenes in the show.
“Being able to actually do this level of choreography and explore this side of theatre, I haven’t really had that much experience. It’s really been a blast.”
The actors started in-studio rehearsals earlier this month.
“As an actor you have to just be able to jump right in,” Woodhouse said. “It’s better to dive right in than to get caught up in the headspace of weird emotions.”
The character Jason spends almost the entire show with the Tyrone puppet on his arm. Thorson-Looysen, who also attended the MAD program, said he he’s enjoyed the challenge of playing both the passive human and the aggressive puppet.
“A lot of the fighting comes from Tyrone himself so everything that I do that’s physically aggressive has to be led with my hand. The power has to come from my hand and show through into this puppet while I’m not showing (it) through myself.”
He described the relationship between the two characters as “kind of like an abusive relationship that he literally cannot get out of because it’s on his own hand.”
Hand to God runs from Jan. 25 to Feb. 10 at the Guild Hall. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $24 and can be purchased online or in-person at Whitehorse Motors.
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org