Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of Hand to God brings you face-to-face with the demons that live inside you with a stellar performance by Thomas Pang
"Obey your master!" screams Metallica's James Hetfield over the speakers as the iconic heavy metal track — 'Master of Puppets' — is played immediately after Singapore Repertory Theatre's production of Hand to God goes into its 15-minute intermission. As the audience takes a much-needed breather through the gasp-enducing, chortle-fuelled story of a boy and his puppet, Tyrone, the soundtrack changes from Metallica's song to My Chemical Romance's 'Mama'. This time, the emo, pop punk outfit wants to tell "Mama" that "we all go to hell," and that, "we're all full of lies" — apt, considering Hand to God's subject matter.
In fact, it's a subject matter that twists and turns throughout the two hour-long production. While its synopsis tells you that teenager Jason (Thomas Pang) and his church member mother Marjorie (Janice Koh) are dealing with grief from the passing of a father and husband just six months before, the show begins with the devilish puppet Tyrone hung high above the stage among other puppets and toys in an eerie, baby mobile of sorts. Cue child-like music — the sort that plays in Saturday morning cartoon programmes — with a hint of despair and cynicism in Tyrone's opening monologue, and you have the tone of the show. The audience is then introduced to the supporting characters: Fellow church group members Jessica (Ann Lek) and Timothy (Gavin Yap) — both with their own puppets — and Pastor Greg (Daniel Jenkins) who oversees the group.
Hand to God unfolds to reveal unrequited desires aimed at the female characters as the men attempt to navigate their flames, both simmering and overpowering. Although Jessica doesn't really play a major part, her character's a catalyst for a lot of things that appear after: A foul-mouthed exchange of words and the undoing of Tyrone as the puppet begins to show a life of his own. Jason struggles as this extension of himself — or the devil — creeps up at the most unnecessary of times: In the classroom with his mates; in the car with his mother; and in bed — with the stage's set showing off its dynamism throughout.
Texan playwright Robert Askins' dark comedy — first staged in 2011 and on Broadway in 2015 — might mask itself as a critique of organised religion, but it delves into issues that are fundamentally universal. With the devil in its details (pun intended), Askins questions that we all have inside of us, and critically, whether we choose to acknowledge and embrace them, or blame someone else.
As Jason continues to struggle with Tyrone pulling his strings, Pang showcases his desperation through polar opposites of the character's personality and voice. After impressing us by playing a deaf character in Pangdemonium's Tribes in 2015, Pang's ability to straddle both limp and devilish drive is a joy to watch as he picks up on the flaws of the human psyche. Reuniting with Pang on stage is Yap, who played his brother in Tribes. The bad boy of the group, his brash, reckless nature takes on the side of humanity with nothing to lose. Meanwhile, both Koh and Jenkins serve as moral compasses on the verge of stalling, toying with the idea that the road to hell is righteously paved with good intentions.
Like Metallica's message about drugs in 'Master of Puppets', Hand to God looks at how things get switched around when the thoughts you control end up controlling you. In Jason's case, unresolved grief and anger manifest in puppet form, fronting heavier issues such as self-harm. While the show's marketing collaterals have referenced the story as a cocktail of The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q, Sesame Street and The Exorcist, its underlying message for the greater good of mankind is clear cut: Communicate. It's that simple.