Ohio-native Steven Boyer grew up as the middle child and considered himself the high-school class clown before packing up his belongings and moving to New York City at the age of 18 to attend The Juilliard School.
"I was the peacemaker among my siblings [and] parents. But, in school, I was the one member of my family who separated from the rest and acted out — I was the class clown. I'm the only one who moved away; everybody else in my family is still in Ohio," he explained. "I wanted to distinguish myself in a way that was shocking, you know, to my peers or my parents, but I also wanted to be the good son."
That balance between innocence and troublemaking finds Boyer, yet again, in Off-Broadway's Hand to God, which returned to New York Feb. 20 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, following its 2011-12 run at Ensemble Studio Theatre. The actor, who has been with the Robert Askins comedy since its origin about four years back (when Boyer created the show's "leading man" himself from socks, thread, and wires), returns to the roles of Christian Puppet Ministry student Jason and vulgar puppet Tyrone, a character possessed by the Devil.
"Tyrone is the devil incarnate, and has taken over part of Jason's body and mind and is using him as a vehicle, so the stakes are as high as they can be. Tyrone, being the devil, wants to rule over Jason... If Jason isn't on board," Boyer said with an uncomfortable laugh, "Tyrone will kill him."
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Unlike the Tony-winning hit Avenue Q, where actors portray a human or a puppet — or switch between the two — Boyer, who previously played with puppetry in Jollyship the Whiz-Bang at Ars Nova, is challenged to play both puppet and person simultaneously.
"While Jason's talking, Tyrone is listening and reacting, and while Tyrone is talking — convincing Jason — Jason is doing the same. One character has to be making the argument while the other is taking it in and considering," he said. "Every thought that you see pass over Jason's face, Tyrone has to be equally as active, and you have to see the puppet thinking, which is strange because the puppet's face doesn't actually move."
Once the puppet is placed on his hand, however, Boyer's body naturally inhabits both beings, and occasionally — in rehearsals — Tyrone is unstoppable.
"I don't really know how to describe it, but when the puppet is on my hand, and we're getting notes, every once in a while — if I think of a joke about what's being said — I, Steve, don't say the joke," he confided. "It comes out of Tyrone's mouth, and people in the room somehow [act like it's] fine. It's not Steve disturbing rehearsal — it's Tyrone.
"When the puppet gets going, it's sort of like this unconscious part of me that just taps into this personality and lets it go," he added. "It's such a complicated dance.… That's why I'm back for more."
(This feature appeared in the February 2014 issue of Playbill. Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work also appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)