What would the gods

BATS Theatre, The Dome, 1 Kent Tce, Wellington

14/10/2023 - 14/10/2023

NZ Improv Festival 2023

Production Details

Created and directed by Cale Bain

The gods have created us in their images, and so also have the same virtues and foibles as all of us in humanity’s complex existence. This is their side of the story. Anger, joy, avarice, generosity, all the ways in which we live, the gods have given unto us.

Some gods are overpowering and beyond comprehension, some middling and feeble, all of them a lesson of being human. Creation stories, prophecies, apocalypses like floods or rains of fire are consistent among the narratives these gods tell from all the places people live.

These stories are humanity’s lot.

14 Oct, 7pm, BATS Theatre

Cast from workshop
Cale Bain (he/him)
Liz Talbot (she/her)
Kieran Gale (he/him)
Jason Geary (he/him)
Wiremu Tuhiwai (He/Him)
Laura Irish (she/her)
Marea Colombo (she/her)
Luke Rimmelzwaan (He/him)
Jane Francis (She/her)

Matt Hutton

Tristram Domican

Improv , Theatre ,

60 mins

A delightful exploration of the whims of the gods and how they play so callously with the lives of mortals

Review by Noelle Greenwood 17th Oct 2023

Are we created in the gods’ image? Or are the gods created in ours? As the follies of men play out on earth, what do the gods think of us? Are they bemused? Are they amused? Do they despair at what we’ve done with their gifts? Or do they feel shame that they’ve failed to guide us towards our own betterment?

These are the questions I can’t help but think as What Would The Gods unfolds before me on the last night of the New Zealand Improv Festival.

These are not flippant musings. And yet the light-hearted and sometimes silly approach to this storytelling from Director Cale Bain of Sydney’s Improv Theatre Sydney and the stellar cast of improvisers offers an accessible way into this line of questioning for those who might normally avoid turning their mind to such philosophical contemplation.

We enter the Dome theatre at BATS, a perfect location for this show concept with the stained glass dome and tall pillars lining the walls, to see a scattering of crumpled up notes across the stage. These had been gathered from the audience in advance – with prompts including “what do you pray to this god for?” and “for what reason is this god feared?”. These speak to our collective invocations as an audience and as humanity.

The scene is set with a series of seemingly fragmented statements from the cast, although we quickly see a theme emerge. We see a frame. We see light streaming through the frame. We see the place where the light converges. A prism. A rainbow. From this rainbow, life emerges. Creatures. These creatures bask in colours, a symbol of emotion. Colours are inherently human. They are threads, each which can be pulled to find a story unfold. Until… black. The colour of death.

This abstract opening is brought to an end as Bain, declaring himself as Cordion, God Of Sense Making, laments that this story makes no sense to him. It becomes clear we are gazing up at a group of gods gathered in the Pantheon. The notes scattered across the floor appear to be the clouds below their feet. As each god declares their dominion, they tell each other stories of how this plays out in the realm of mankind and we see these scenes played out by the same performers.

Throughout each of these scenes, Bain plays the adjudicator of sorts, declaring whether the story we’ve just been told “makes sense”. Unsurprisingly, there is not a lot of sense to be made from the whims of mankind.

We meet nine more gods.

Odorous, the god of pungent essences, rot and decay – played by Jane Francis – wafts around the stage bringing to life that which humankind perceives through the sense of smell. Francis’s offers a gentle and supportive performance which appropriately mimics the way scents mingle into the fabric of our daily lives.

Hipstarius, God of Baristas and Coffee, is depicted by professional improviser and actor Jason Geary. Geary brings a gravitas to this character that perfectly juxtaposes the absurdity of the scenario that unfolds as performers explore stories of The Time Before Coffee.

Mario, God of Parmigiana, played by Marea Colombo is a delightful and larger than life character (despite their somewhat uncertain godly motivations!). Their entanglements with Odorous are obvious as performers explore the link between scents and food (rotting or otherwise), and we hear mention of a parmesan-like odour. While hilarious, Mario is somewhat of a cameo god appearance as Colombo goes on to endow a different character who plays a pivotal role in the upcoming apocalypse.

Martini, Goddess of Vodka, played by professional actor and performer Laura Irish, baits and teases Hipstarius as she sets her dominion up as the antihero to coffee. “Your powers wear off after a matter of hours, and who is it they turn to then?” she goads. Irish plays Martini with the same mischievous grace we’ve come to know from her throughout this festival.

Podiatron, God of Feet, played by long time improviser and sketch comedian Liz Talbot, declares her dominion after a frenzied and hilarious depiction of the Potato Vodka Goblin (played by Colombo) and some inevitable meddling by Odorous which brings up undercurrents of fetishes. “I’m not here to yuck anybody’s yum,” proclaims Talbot. Talbot’s confidence and poise as she plays a truly absurd god with ridiculous motivations is what somehow makes this character choice work. Her comedic instincts are clear.

This invites a story of a caveman, played by Keiran Gale: the shearing of the first sheep, the knitting of the first socks, and the meeting of “the connected one”, played by Luke Rimmelzwaan. I’ll confess I am a little lost in this story but perhaps this is the point given which god we meet next.

Toady, God of Hallucinogens, played by comedy improvisor Keiran Gale, provides the final piece in the (un)holy trinity of narcotics: coffee, alcohol and microdosing. As he meddles in the lives of a man just trying to have a zoom meeting with his mother in law, we see Gale’s obvious penchant for tomfoolery at play. The scene that unfolds is truly chaotic, but I would expect nothing less given the story we are seeing.

As this scene comes to a close we feel a change in pace. The main character of that fateful zoom call finds a strength to stand up for himself and announces he is going to make himself a coffee. A resolve enters the space. A slowness. A pause. Not the kind where you wonder if the performers are lost for what to say or do next. But something more poignant. “What colour is coffee?” asks Hipstarius.

Now we meet Liones, God of Woodland creatures, played by veteran improvisor and actor Wiremu Tuhiwai. There is a softness to the character as Tuhiwai steps out of the shadows to speak. He talks of creatures that prefer the dark. For while it is scary, it offers them protection against those creatures that would seek to hurt them. Tuhiwai’s performance as this most gentle of the gods is captivating. I find myself sitting forward in my seat as I sense something ominous coming around the corner. Why is Liones so fearful? some of the other gods wonder.

Enter the God of Inintenton, played by long-time seasoned improviser Luke Rimmelzwaan, “I forgot to give him bravery.” Rimmelzwaan’s booming tone and general gravitas transports us fleetingly to the Pantheon and I forget for a moment that we are in fact sitting in a theatre in Wellington.

Rimmelzwaan begins narrating the story of a family living in a cabin with a young child, played by Victoria Watson-Sepejak, and the pony they love so dearly (played by Irish). As their parents lament that they cannot get their child to do anything they want, because “Pony says no”, they call upon Tremendous Horse (played by Rimmelzwaan) to help them out but their plan backfires as TH tramples the parents to death. Child sets out with Pony on a journey through the wilderness where eventually they cross paths with Liones. Watson-Sepejak’s performance as Child is both endearing and unsettling as we see a coldness in their gaze which makes one wonder where this story is heading.

When the Squirrel of Destruction (played by Colombo) appears, it is prophesied that they are they bringer of the end. While such apocalyptic storytelling could be unnerving it is offset by the hilarity of the gods discussing why squirrels have so much room in their cheeks (the answer is, the God of Inintention forgot to make the cheeks proportionate).

The gods send Liones to speak to the squirrel and Tuhiwai implores Colombo to rethink their plans for ultimate destruction. Perhaps instead of eliminating everything they can just start again? Restart the world? Give the gods a second chance to get it right?

But the Squirrel of Destruction has seen enough. What have these gods brought to the world? Narcotics, decay, fetishes and a bunch of chaos through sheer forgetfulness. Colombo declares to Liones that the gods don’t deserve a do-over, that no reboot of humanity is on the cards. Tuhiwai agrees.

The audience leans forward in anticipation as we prepare for the destruction of earth. Until someone, I don’t catch who, calls out “are those knives in your cheeks”? (Cue audience losing it.)

Of course an improviser would never turn down an offer like that, and Colombo begins whipping out (metaphorical) knives from her big squirrel cheeks. “It’s all of you that are the problem,” Liones cries as Colombo throws a knife at Podiatrus. Talbot falls to the floor. “The bathtubs are all losing their feet!” cries Geary.

Colombo tosses a dagger his way. “The coffee… it’s running clear”…

Imaginary blades fly left, right, forward and behind as Colombo is lit by an ominous blend of red and green lights interspersed with shadow, a lighting gift from technical operator Tristram Domican who has lit this whole show perfectly. Dramatic music from the flawless Matt Hutton on keys underscores the scene as the gods announce that the colours are dying, the light is ending, the constellations are closing.

Watson-Sepejak reveals themselves to be the God of Resurrection and a final blade is tossed their way.

At the end of the battle only Colombo and Tuhiwai remain standing.

Through all of this the audience is of course gasping, cheering, laughing, applauding. What an unexpected yet satisfying end to this tale.

And yes, on the surface, this is a delightful exploration of the whims of the gods and how they play so callously with the lives of mortals.

Still, I can’t resist delving under the hood to unveil a deeper critique of society. One which questions the absurd whims of humans and our compulsion to invent gods to make sense of the things we can’t understand.

Cordion, God of Sense Making, I can’t help but believe, is in fact an allegory for the role of religion and faith throughout history. Do we not invent gods, goddesses, deities, myths and legends precisely to make sense of the world? Do we not layer rule upon lore upon catechism in a vain attempt to bring order to the chaos of life? And yet the chaos persists.

And perhaps the ultimate destruction of the gods in the Pantheon is in fact an apt metaphor for the diminishing role religion plays in our societies. Is it an accident that it comes at the hands of the sweetest and most pure of the gods? I think not. (Well, I mean, it’s improvised theatre so I guess the whole thing is technically an accident, but I can’t help but wonder if this part is somewhat baked into the show’s format).

To me, it seems that human connection and an affinity to protect nature is in fact the perfect antidote to the shackles of organised religion. And that while we will always have the urge to make sense of the things we don’t understand, things like love and death and power, we can now turn to the sciences to find many of the answers. And turn to each other to find the rest.

This may not at all be the message that Director and Cast are going for, but it certainly gets me thinking. And, after all, that’s what art and comedy is all about: holding up a mirror to ourselves and society to prompt the asking of the big questions… like, what would the gods?


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