So, YES, there are puppets in the Royal MTC Warehouse’s new show Hand to God.
But lest you think the play might be a good substitute for whatever’s on at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, take note of "mature content" warning attached to the dark comedy from playwright Robert Askins. Take special note of the specifics: "strong language, violence, sexuality and puppets behaving badly."
Hand to God, which just closed its Broadway run a few weeks ago, is set around a Christian puppet ministry in a small Texas town. There, young Jason Stevens (Tom Keenan) tries to be a good, dutiful son for his ministering mother (Sharon Bajer).
Unfortunately, Jason’s sock puppet Tyrone gets a mind of his own, and it’s not unlike the demonic spirit that inhabited Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Unholy mayhem ensues.
Winnipeg actor Toby Hughes plays Jason’s buddy Timothy, the resident bad kid in the puppet ministry until he is upstaged by the demonic Tyrone. Timothy proves to be an instigator to Jason’s transformation.
"Jason is one of the good kids and he’s watching Timothy be a jerk all the time and making him feel like crap," Hughes explains.
"And he gets frustrated, but the way he’s been taught to behave is to be polite and to be kind and take things as they come. But it’s just making him more and more frustrated.
"It comes down to: Why does my character get to be bad all the time when all the other characters have to be good and it’s not getting them anywhere?"
Hughes embraced the semi-toxic comedy of the piece.
"It’s fun to indulge in being nasty," he says.
Hughes maintains a constant presence in Winnipeg theatre, performing frequently as one of the members of the musical improv troupe Outside Joke, a frequent fixture with Shakespeare in the Ruins and doing a trans-Manitoba Royal MTC tour in the comedy The Hound of the Baskervilles, playing Watson to Arne McPherson’s Sherlock Holmes.
More recently, he got to enjoy the sinister pleasures of working in a TV horror series.
"In the months when I didn’t have theatre work, I managed to score a role on Channel Zero," he says of the SyFy series.
Channel Zero shot two back-to-back seasons in Winnipeg late in 2016. Hughes worked in the second series, The No-End House, which won’t go to air until later this year. He says he enjoys the differences between theatre and film.
"On film sets, it always astounds me, the engineering that goes into making these little scenes look so real," he says. "On Channel Zero, there was this facade of house that they cart around to different parts of the city to get different angles on it with different things behind it. And your job as an actor is to go in and live in that place for a while."