Stage preview: 'Hand to God' unleashes one wicked puppet at City Theatre
September 22, 2016 12:00 AM
Nick LaMedica portrays mild-mannered Jason and his alter ego/puppet Tyrone in City Theatre's "Hand to God."
By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If you see a guy walking around the South Side with a puppet, say “Hi.” Just don’t be surprised if the puppet answers.
Nick LaMedica is the guy, and the puppet is Tyrone, his co-star in “Hand to God,” the wicked comedy about a foul-mouthed demonic puppet who wreaks havoc among members of a Christian Puppet Ministry in a Texas town.
When Tyrone (Mr. LaMedica) takes control from mild-mannered Jason (also Mr. LaMedica), the results are sinful.
Puppet madness in City Theatre's 'Hand to God'
Nick LaMedica demonstrates his roles as Jason and the demonic puppet Tyrone in the season-opening comedy. (Video by Sharon Eberson)
“I often play such nice. earnest people,” said the actor, who looks the Jason part, at least. “It’s really kind of overwhelming and exciting to get to have the license to paint really boldly and get to say all these things I’m not really sure I’ll ever get to say again — I’m not sure I’ll ever be paid to say these things again.”
The play by Robert Askins comes to City Theatre after a Tony-nominated Broadway run from April 2015 through January 2016.
City artistic director Tracy Brigden jumped on the rights as soon as they became available, and the South Side theater company is one of the first to take on “Hand to God” outside of New York.
‘Hand to God’
Where: City Theatre, Bingham and 13th streets, South Side.
When: Previews through Sept. 29; opening night, Sept. 30, is sold out. This weekend: 5:30 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Then: 7 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday (also 1 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5 and 12); 8 p.m. Thursday-Friday; 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, then 1 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 8 and 15; and 2 p.m. Sunday. Check citytheatrecompany.org for complete listings.
Tickets: $37.50-$69; $15 for under 30. CityTheatreCompany.org or 412-431-2489.
She gravitated to the play at first because reading it made her laugh out loud.
“Giving the times we’re in, it’s surprising that people are writing more comedies, but comedy is the hardest — and this is really, really funny,” Ms. Brigden said.
The play’s commentary on religion — “about the use of religion as a shield and the hypocritical use of religion” — also seemed apropos for the times.
“So you can go in and surf on the surface of the funny, or you can look at it a little deeper and see a bigger message about our world,” she said.
A mutual friend was key in putting New York-based actor LaMedica on the path to working with director Brigden. Actor M. Scott McLean starred for her in “Midsummer” for Hartford Stages, and when he heard “Hand to God” was coming to City, he said, “You have to see Nick LaMedica.”
“Really?” said the actor, hearing Ms. Brigden reveal that for the first time. “I have to send him a big thank-you basket.”
He arrived at the audition with a puppet he had made at a workshop that was a birthday present from his father, a children’s entertainer. Using the puppet, he auditioned with a staged and memorized scene between Jason and Tyrone.
The puppet’s face was Muppet-like, with a blank look known as the uncanny valley. For Ms. Brigden, it was all in the arms — the puppet’s arms.
“The arms make a big difference in how real the puppet seems,” she said. “Some people came in without puppets, some came in with just a sock. Then Mr. LaMedica demonstrated the arms!
“When a puppet is well animated like Nick can do, Nick disappears even though his head is right there, and it’s just Tyrone.”
As a result of his preparations, Mr. LaMedica not only will perform the role at City but he’s been booked for Denver as well.
The actor’s background includes Shakespearean roles and the national tour of “War Horse,” both as a puppeteer working the lead horse, Joey, as a foal and in the character of David.
He also recalled preparing to understudy two roles with different dialects by acting out the characters’ scenes together, a very Jason/Tyrone-like thing to do.
Working a hand puppet was a new experience, but he did have one expectation — you don’t become a puppeteer because it’s comfortable.
“It’s an art form that hurts because of the things it asks your body to do, in terms of the muscle fatigue or weird positions you are in for long periods of time,” he said. “Some of the puppetry I’ve done in the past, you have a 60- or 70-pound puppet that’s on your shoulders that you’re in control of, and you have to do very awkward things.”
With that, he makes T. rex arms, but his hands are moving as if holding control sticks.
“I know it’s going to hurt, but it’s part of the love of it, like getting a tattoo,” he said.
And you may want to avoid shaking hands with someone who has just removed a hand puppet. There will be sweat.
With the cons come many pros. After his audition in New York City, Mr. LaMedica met his wife and friends at a bar, and the puppet made an appearance.
“My wife was like, ‘Bring him out. Show him to our other weird friends.’ So I took Tyrone and tried him out on a number of people at that bar. Yeah, it was actually really fun,” he said.
That puppet wasn’t the “real” Tyrone, who was designed by Stephanie Shaw for City. Mr. LaMedica was using the one he had made as a child and then packed away. In fact, he had steered clear of the puppets his father used in children’s shows.
“I never touched the things — as a kid, they kind of scared me.”
Now Mr. LaMedica is rarely without his puppet, and he’s discovering the power of being someone who can do nice and earnest and wield a wicked puppet.
“It’s very subversive,” he said, “because it’s this cute thing that you automatically accept and open up to — which allows the chance that you can really get in a lot of shock.”
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. Twitter: @SEberson_pg.
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