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NZ Fringe 2014
Created and performed by Andrew Gunn and Rosie Tapsell
Co-directed by Simon Haren
Presented by Pressure Point Collective

at A cosy, secret location, Wellington
From 15 Feb 2014 to 23 Feb 2014

Reviewed by Lori Leigh, 16 Feb 2014

Soul and body. Spirit and flesh. God and the Church. North Korea and Finland. E and Chocolate Mousse. Rap music and Gregorian chants. Through these juxtapositions, GOD-BELLY explores the relationship between religion and our bodies - Why are we hungry? What does one do with hunger? And what are we hungry for? – highlighting, perhaps THE most existential question of all time: Where do we find or locate God in us? In the world? 

The play finds itself most fittingly at St. Michael's Anglican Church Hall. The intimate stage space is lined with green gym mats caged by various lamps, a laptop, speakers and a microphone. Two extraordinarily talented actors and makers – Andrew Gunn and Rosie Tapsell – contain the entire piece, controlling all of their own technical elements from this world and enacting all the roles.

The piece itself, however, is a shared event: everything from direct address monologues to an interactive cross-fit class where audience members are invited to jog laps around the stage and discuss their spirit animals with Terrance, the trainer.  (As part of our motivating pep talk, I am also asked to guess how much Jane Fonda could bench press. You'll have to see the show yourself to find out.) 

Two stories are cleverly interwoven: one of Catherine, a Medieval nun; the other of George and Jude, two Auckland teenagers who meet at MUNA (Mock United Nations Assembly).

Believing that she is divinely ordained to sense others' sins, Catherine is counselled by Father Raymond, a priest sent from the Pope, because the Abbey is concerned with her outrageous acts of excess penance, mainly extreme bouts of fasting. 

Meanwhile, George and Jude make a romantic connection over running. The tensions in their relationship — George, a Steiner kid who keeps crumpets in his room and wants to “maybe make pottery” when he gets out of school; Jude, who loves order and control and wants to be a diplomat so she can fix world problems – soon reveal that Jude has a secret where her rigorous self-discipline has crossed the line to self-punishment.

In places the stories are thematically linked (using phrases such as “athlete of the spirit”) and in other parts they ingeniously begin to blur so that Catherine and Jude can be read as one in the same.  

Lest this material sounds all too heavy, I can assure you the script is full of comedy, including a singing duet of Ana (anorexia) and Mia (bulimia). Gunn and Tapsell both deliver sensitively nuanced and emotionally committed performances. Shifting from poetically moving dialogue to relatable and quirky colloquial banter, the script is well-written. 

Just as the content itself is layered, the format employs a variety of theatrical genres, but it is the physical theatre that is most impressive and captivatingly visceral.  Not since the Frantic Assembly performance of Beautiful Burnout in the 2011 International Festival of the Arts have I seen physical theatre so enthralling and explosive (no small comparison I might add).

Transitions are wrought with the ritualistic whipping of white robes across their bodies. Emotional struggles are physicalized through wrestling stints. When the characters grapple with their bodies, the actors palpably struggle. They run. They sweat. Their bodies quake. And the two actors are almost seamlessly in-sync with one another. The whole piece plays out like a delicious dance. 

There is an element that haunts the success of this piece, however.  The play (including a ten-minute interval) is nearly two-and-a-half hours long on opening night.  It's not only that I worry about audiences, who are accustomed to Fringe plays being around an hour, and the actors, whose bodies surely cannot sustain this type of work for this long night after night, but the real issue is that in many places there is unnecessary and extraneous material that detracts from the work. It could be trimmed or removed entirely to make a more powerful, forward-moving journey. 

As these two develop their work, I sincerely hope they make the cuts so that the work can see its full potential.

GOD-BELLY is smart and sensual, entertaining and energetic. Andrew Gunn and Rosie Tapsell, without a doubt, are two newcomers to watch and GOD-BELLY is so far one of my favourites of the Fringe.  Go see this play.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.

See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);
 Cherie Moore
 John Smythe