Anyone who imagines puppets as cute, cuddly, child-friendly characters likely will be stunned to meet the one sitting on Jordan Ross Siebert’s hand — a tooth-bearing, foul-mouthed piece of cloth that goes by the name Tyrone.
Tyrone, who has been scene-stealing since the small theater premiere of “Hand to God” in 2011, which made an improbable move to Broadway a few years later, is making its way to Tucson. Directed by Kevin Johnson, founder of Arizona Onstage, “Hand to God” opens a six-performance run starting Friday, Sept. 9, at the Cabaret Space at the Temple of Music and Art.
Siebert, who this spring rocked Tucson as the lead in the Johnson-directed “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” is portraying both evil Tyrone and his troubled teen puppeteer Jason. “Hand to God,” written by Robert Askins, centers on a conservative Christian puppet ministry run by Jason’s mother.
Charles Isherwood wrote in his positive New York Times review that the show “exposes the base impulses, the sexual, self-destructive, potentially violent ones, that just about everyone harbors to some small degree.”
It’s a play Johnson has been wanting to stage since he first saw it off-Broadway.
“At first glance it’s just pretty sick,” he said. “But it’s so well written. And there’s so many layers of character development. I was born and raised in a very, very strict religious family in Texas, near where the playwright was born. And so a lot of the characters that he writes, he knows these people. You can laugh at all the raunchy stuff, but at heart it’s a pretty amazing commentary of what faith is, but also how faith can be there to control our lives and to control everything in the, quote, name of God.”
As a producer, Johnson tries to create work that will bring in an audience, but he doesn’t play it safe by choosing proven works that have been seen many times. He said the well-attended run of Hedwig showed that Tucson theatergoers want something different.
In both Hedwig and “Hand to God,” a primary key to moving ahead with the production was finding the right lead, which, in both cases, was Siebert. The actor and director met when Johnson was directing a fourth-grade play and he put out a call for someone with a fog machine.
“I’m going to say I have an unhealthy obsession with theater fog,” Siebert admitted. “I love dry ice, I love low-flow fog, and I have a couple, more than I would like to mention, of fog machines.”
Siebert also has a long career in theater, starting when he was 4, and including a previous appearance as Hedwig in a production in Baltimore. Though he rarely does non-musicals, the darkly comical nature and subject matter of “Hand to God” intrigued him.
To get into the duality of Jason and Tyrone, Siebert recorded each part to get used to talking to himself in the rapid-fire manner that is part of a few key scenes.
As for the religious themes of the show, Siebert said it hit close to home. After coming out to his parents as gay as a teen, he was sent to a church where he said he was assaulted by a teacher. “Hand to God,” despite its humor, deals with the repression in some churches and its damaging effects on vulnerable people.
“Which has made this whole intimacy coach thing so wonderful with doing this show,” he said.
Siebert is referring to Matt Denney, an intimacy director brought in by Johnson to make sure the actors feel safe and comfortable in what Denney calls “spicy” scenes.
Still a relatively new position in theater, intimacy directors talk through emotional states of mind and specific actions the actors are asked to do.
“If we really think about old Hollywood and entertainment mindset, it’s rooted in this idea that the director tells you something to do as a performer, and if you choose not to do that thing, you’re going to be fired and they’re going to find someone else who does want to do that thing,” Denney said. “It took a while for the entertainment industry to say, ‘You know what? That’s not really how consent works, when no is not an option, and yes is the only option. That’s not consent.’”
Denney has helped Siebert and other cast members find ways to comfortably convey Johnson’s staging, as the play contains moments of both sex and violence.
Despite the challenges of tackling a lesser-known play covering some potentially controversial topics, Johnson said it’s the kind of theater he wants to continue offering Tucson audiences.
“If you’re looking for an evening of surprises, gut-busting laughter and shock, come and see it, because you’re not probably going to see this anywhere else around here,” he said. “And if they’re willing to take the plunge, and if they realize that there is extreme profanity and extreme excessive violence, and they know that going in and they still hate the show, come talk to me and I’ll give them credit for a future show.”
“Hand to God”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Fridays Sept. 9 and Sept. 16, and Saturdays Sept. 10 and Sept. 17, and 3 p.m. Sundays Sept. 11 and Sept. 18
WHERE: Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Avenue, Tucson
COST: $20 for students and teachers, $25 for seniors, $27.50 general admission