In Hand to God, the Tony-nominated comedy bowing this weekend at Jobsite Theater, Nick Hoop plays two characters.
In Robert Askins’ script, he’s Jason, the mild-mannered kid who reluctantly joins the “puppet club” meeting in his basement of his Fundamentalist Christian Church. Jason creates a sock puppet he names Tyrone … who proceeds to take over the Christketeers through intimidation, lies … and foul-mouthed, truth-telling spew. Everyone’s secret desires are unlocked, and acted upon, all because of this one ugly, obnoxious puppet with teeth.
Which happens to be attached to Jason’s arm.
To Nick Hoop’s arm.
The phrase “a puppet play” might bring up memories of 2004’s Avenue Q, a profane (but still kind of cutesy-poo) send-up of Sesame Street.
Hand to God is an entirely different animal.
“Avenue Q never turns on you,” says Hoop, last seen in the virtual Tampa Repertory Theatre production of I And You in December. “There’s always going to be a layer of lighthearted energy. But what’s so great about Hand to God is, you are pushed into this satire of religious identity. It’s not even a satire of being religious, it’s a satire of the way that we can sometimes choose to carry ourselves differently through the lens of our religion.”
The cast of this live-onstage Jobsite production also includes Katrina Stevenson as Jason’s mother Margery, the Christketeers’ ringmaster; Kara Sotakoun as Jessica, Jason’s love interest (her puppet, Jolene, is Tyrone’s love interest, too); Evan Fineout as “horny teen” Timothy; and Brian Shea as Pastor Greg.
David M. Jenkins is the director.
Hoop came to Hand to God with some puppet experience. Originally, much of freeFall’s 2018 take on The Fantasticks was going to be performed with puppets. Hoop, playing The Mute, underwent “about 12 hours” of puppet boot camp with a professional puppeteer.
Director Eric Davis changed his mind, as he is wont to do, and the whole concept was altered. No puppets for Nicky.
All of which left him initially uncertain about making Tyrone – designed by Linda Roethke – come alive.
“As an actor, you do the homework before you come into the room,” Hoop says. “You study and you learn. You figure out what your character’s objective is. So I go into the room having to trust that I’ve done the work.
“With this show, you cannot be comfortable. You can’t just rely on your raw emotional state, or the work that you’ve done to drive a character’s motivation. You have to be very conscious of every single move that you’re making.
“While thinking ‘Is his face turned out to the audience the right way?’ ‘Does his arm need to move slightly lower than it is?’ ‘What am I doing, if Tyrone’s doing this?’ So you’re kind of thinking for two different people. Because Tyrone IS a different character, by all means.”
Working the puppet, and maintaining it as a separate character, is “one of the most difficult things to do onstage,” Hoop reports, “but thankfully the script is so strong, and so good, that it really does help you.
“It would be very different if this was a bad play. But it’s such a phenomenal play that it gives you the blueprints you need to really push forward.”
So, to the metaphysical question. Is Tyrone – Hoop describes him as “Kermit the Frog after doing a line of coke” – really just a manifestation of the repressed Jason’s subconscious, or is his appearance some sort of divine intervention? (Tyrone will have his own opinions on this).
“In our production especially, you have enough arguments to make the case for both,” says Hoop. “Tyrone doesn’t divulge any information that Jason might not already be aware of …
“Without revealing too much, there are a few things that happen in the show that might make a strong case for the other side of the argument. Let’s just say a lot of fun, interesting things will happen.”
For tickets and information about Jobsite’s safe seating arrangements, click here.