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The Canberra Times
The Canberra Times
Ron Cerabona

The demonic church youth group puppet heading to Canberra

Back from left, Holly Ross, Josh Wiseman, Arran McKenna and Steph Roberts and front, Michael Cooper and Tyrone in Hand to God. Picture: Supplied

What happens when one of the creations of a Christian puppet ministry takes on a foul-mouthed, increasingly independent life of his own?

Robert Askins' play Hand to God, presented by Everyman Theatre, explores this notion as well as tackling other issues of faith, morality and relationships.

Michael Cooper plays Jason, the shy teenage son of recently widowed Margery (Steph Roberts). Both mother and son have been devastated by grief and are struggling to communicate with each other.

To occupy herself, Margery has volunteered to start a Christian Puppet Ministry at her Lutheran church in the small town of Cypress, Texas with the support of Pastor Greg (Arran McKenna).

Jason and bullying Timothy (Josh Wiseman) are reluctant attendees along with puppet enthusiast Jessica (Holly Ross).

Cooper said, "Puppet ministries are a real thing - kids make puppets and perform for the congregation - old Bible stories, things like that."

Jason's puppet Tyrone has less holy ideas and soon takes on a foul-mouthed, destructive life of his own.

Michael Cooper, left and Tyrone in Hand to God. Picture: Supplied

"Tyrone is very much alive and very much demonic, or possessed by the Devil," Cooper said.

While some of what happens with Tyrone is harmless - "I do the whole of Who's on First?, the Abbott and Costello routine, by myself," Cooper said - the puppet's words and deeds are often embarrassing, dangerous or disturbing, increasingly so as the action unfolds and Tyrone asserts himself more and more.

And he's not the only one to get up to some eyebrow-raising activities.

Although there's plenty of raunchy content - this is not, it must be stressed, a play for children - both Cooper and Roberts said Hand to God had more than smut and sensationalism to offer and was not anti-God.

For Roberts, "It's really about communication, grief, love and loneliness ...It's a black comedy but there's a lot of drama and it has a real heart and real humanity."

Cooper's thought was that Hand to God "is about family - it's dealing with two people, Margery and Jason, who are dealing with a very recent loss, and how they process it".

All the characters have more than one dimension, the actors said.

Timothy, the bully, comes from an abusive home himself and Jessica and Michael have feelings for each other but, being teenagers in a small, conservative town, don't know how to express them.

Pastor Greg, while acting with genuinely good intentions, has an ulterior motive as he is smitten with the lonely, sad Margery who, like her son, is trying to cope with the loss that God, or fate, has inflicted upon them.

Askins' play was first produced off-Broadway in 2011 and then again in 2014 and won the off-Broadway Alliance Award for best new Play.

It moved to Broadway in 2015 and was nominated for five Tony Awards including best play.

In Canberra before COVID, some friends established a play-reading group that continued online during the pandemic.

Hand to God was one of these and Roberts and Cooper, as well as Everyman's Jarrad West, who is directing the play, were in the group and all of them liked it.

Hand to God is on at ACT Hub on selected days and times from July 27 to August 13, 2022. For ages 18+, not suitable for children. Bookings:

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