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Hell in a hand puppet: Hand to God at The Theatre at St. Claude

Storyville Collective stages a play about a boy and his demonic puppet



Life is awkward enough for Jason.

  He's a shy kid trying to figure out how to approach Jessica, a girl in the Christian puppet ministry run by Jason's widowed mother in their church in a small town in east Texas.

  Jason tries to talk to her, but his puppet, Tyrone, beats him to the punch.

  "He thinks you're hot," Tyrone hisses at Jessica, as Jason looks helplessly at the fuzzy creature reaching toward the girl.

  It's a hilarious betrayal, and the battle between the puppeteer and his uncontrollable alter ego drive Robert Askins' play, Hand to God, which opens Thursday at The Theatre at St. Claude.

  Tyrone doesn't just reveal what's on Jason's mind. He has a strong will of his own and a foul mouth, and the two battle like rival siblings.

  Jason's mother is too distracted to notice. The church pastor keeps dropping by the church basement, aware that she's single. And another teen "Christ-kateer" has his eye on her as well.

  Hand to God revels in outrageous humor, not pulling any punches over teen lust or anything else. It premiered off-Broadway in 2011, and a version mounted on Broadway drew five Tony Award nominations in 2015.

  Michael McKelvey's Storyville Collective is presenting the work. McKelvey became the artistic director of Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre last year. This year, he's preparing for the company's 50th anniversary celebration and a season including Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun and Hairspray. McKelvey is maintaining Summer Lyric's focus on big, Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals.

  With Storyville Collective, McKelvey produced Reefer Madness, a madcap musical based on the cult classic film about drug use gone awry. While he mostly works with musicals, he seized on Hand to God.

  "I don't get to direct plays that much," he says before a rehearsal. "I was like, 'Where's a play that's in my wheelhouse?' This was described as 'Avenue Q meets The Exorcist.'" I thought, 'I can hang with demonic puppets.' But also, I spent half my life in Texas. This is a Texas story. I get the Bible-thumping references. I lived in Dallas for five years. I spent about 19 years in Austin. I spent some time in Abilene, Texas. When I think of this, I think of Abilene. People in Abilene will kill me for saying this, but there's nothing to do in Abilene except go cow tipping or go to church."

  While Tyrone is a hilarious character, the drama is not merely profane. (The playwright attended a puppet ministry while growing up in Texas.) Jason and Tyrone are not the only important char-acters, and his mother is struggling with getting her life back together.

  "You laugh a lot and there are things that are shocking," McKelvey says. "But there are some heartfelt things in the show. I want to do shows that have a good book. There has to be a story there that I want to follow."

  Storyville Collective is bringing more than Hand to God to The Theatre at St. Claude. Owner Jim Fitzmorris gave him full use of the space during the run. McKelvey is working with Sean Patterson and Gary Rucker to remount their production — with some new direction — of the comedic Gutenberg! The Musical!

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