R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - HAND TO GOD with Katie Monroe | Theatre Philadelphia
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R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - HAND TO GOD with Katie Monroe

Apr 24, 2017

We don’t exactly know each other. After a last minute schedule change, I enlist Theatre Philadelphia’s Leigh Goldenberg to help me find a date for Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Hand to God. She immediately writes back that Katie Monroe is always up for an adventure. Katie, like Leigh and myself, is a member of the Leadership Philadelphia Connectors and Keepers cohort; she quickly replies that she’d love to come along. Is it too much to say that she’s willing to take a leap of faith for Hand to God? Too late; I already said it.

 


R. Eric Thomas (left) and Katie Monroe

I have to admit, I’m a bit nervous. My friend, Kristen Norine, who is the Audience Service Manager at PTC spies me standing in the theater vestibule awaiting Katie, awkwardly checking my phone. “You look so quintessentially ‘waiting for a blind date,’” she texts me. This is both accurate and a compliment as I always picture myself as a young Meg Ryan. The unexpectedness and potential serendipity of a romcom is built into this project in which I go to shows with Philadelphians who are integral parts of city life but not directly connected to the theatre community and report back on what we talked about. An evening of theater always carries with it the same promise and potential of all the greatest dates.

 

It’s been a minute since I’ve been on a date, like a date-date, and even longer since I’ve been on a blind date, so I’m curious what even happens. How do people, like, speak to each other? That question is also at the heart of Hand to God, a ribald, riotous two-act dramedy about a Southern church that is terrorized by a demonic puppet. Perfect first date fodder.

 

The puppet in question--a yellow sock with a tuft of orange hair who goes by the name of Tyrone--takes up residence on the hand of sensitive teenager Jason (played by the virtuosic Aubie Merrylees), who is grieving the death of his father, harboring a crush on classmate Jessica (Alex Keiper) and suffering a disconnect with his mother, Margery (Grace Gonglewski), who runs their church’s Christian Puppet Ministry. Not that you’d know any of that from what he says. Surrounded by his stalwart mother, his bright crush, a lewd bully (Matteo Scammell) and a sad-sack pastor (William Zielinski) with designs on his recently widowed mother, Jason all but fades into the Sunday School poster-covered walls. Enter Tyrone, who begins the play simply egging Jason to be more assertive but quickly graduates to a far more aggressive agenda. Is is sinister? Maybe. But ultimately Tyrone just wants these devout people, bursting at the seems with feeling and longing, to actually talk to each other.

 

By intermission, Katie and I are old friends; watching a foul-mouthed puppet pantomime sex acts will bond people. I recommend it as an icebreaker for your next conference. Katie, the child of biologists who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, is tickled by hyperrealistic set designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, covered with bright posters bearing Sunday School-appropriate messages about God. She imagines Bembridge having to explain his order to a church supply company. “Oh, just stocking up for my show about a demonic puppet. Have a blessed day!”

 

These days Katie works for a number of institutions that keep our city going, including the Fairmount CDC, and is one of the Philadelphians responsible for our bike-share program, but she grew up in a town with one public school which everyone attended. “If you didn’t go to the public school, it was because your parents didn’t want you to know about evolution,” she quips. She says she’s fascinated by the struggles of the devout characters in Hand to God. We talk about experiences with religions as young people and she remarks that she found herself really alienated from it for a time because of the way some of the faithful in her town behaved.

 

Belief is a powerful thing. I am constantly fascinated by that undefinable impulse that prompts people of all religions to take what they believe to be true internally and use it to try to change the behavior of others externally. Personally, I like think that most people have the best intentions in this regard, even though the result can be less than good sometimes. Tyrone would disagree with me wholeheartedly. But I’m just one person and he’s a sock with eyes, so who cares what we think?

 

Katie tells me that by senior year of high school she’d realized she didn’t want to live in a world where you can just dismiss people’s beliefs. She found herself taking a course on the New Testament in school to expand her horizons. “If you’re interested in how the world works,” she says, “You have to be curious about religion.”

 

Ultimately Hand to God is not so much about Christianity, for or against, as it is about the engine of all religious pursuit: curiosity and fear. And a desire to connect with something outside of oneself. To be fair, it’s also about the lengths we’ll go to to disguise our base instincts, but, like Mark in the Bible, I’m going to tell you my version and if you want the rest you can go see it yourself.

 

After the play, Katie and I stop into Plenty Cafe where I have a thematically appropriate “Holy Detox” tea. We’re still talking about curiosity and fear. She’s a frequent FringeArts patron; I ask her if she’s the kind of person who likes their edgier, more immersive shows. I love FringeArts and will see anything there but as an audience member I hate to be touched or spoken to. This also applies outside of the theater. Katie is farther along on the spectrum of openness than me. More curious, less fearful. While she appreciates traditional performances in proscenium settings where, as she puts its, “it’s dark where you are and light where they are,” she’s had great experiences where the audience was drawn into the action as well.


Aubie Merrylees and Alex Keiper

 

“There’s something interesting about seeing people’s reactions instead of being shrouded in darkness,” she says. “It reminds you that we’re all in this together.” Later she reasons that the risk is worth it: “You could just stay home if you didn’t want to feel something.”

 

Hand to God by Robert Askins, directed by Matt Pfeiffer, is produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company. It opened on April 12 and runs through April 30. Find tickets and more information at philadelphiatheatrecompany.org

R. Eric Thomas is an award-winning playwright and humorist. His most recent play, Time Is On Our Side, was the recipient of two Barrymore Awards including Best New Play and was named a finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. He writes a daily humor column for ELLE.com in which he “reads” the news. In addition to ELLE.com and ELLE magazine, his writing has appeared in the New York Times, W, Man Repeller, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Magazine and more. rericthomas.com

 

R. Eric Thomas' Theatre Date - HAND TO GOD with Katie Monroe