I loved the first season of MILK! Despite its eventual descent into chaos, the unique concept was made for Fringe. In the 2021 season, I got the sense that the creator, Sean Dugdale-Martin, gave few parameters to the show to see how far the audience would go – and, with more water balloons available than the length of the show could handle, I don’t think the improvisers quite knew what had hit them. This year however, co-directors Dugdale-Martin and Dylan Hutton have successfully acted on feedback to tighten the show’s format. The revised structure balances the audience’s agency to create chaos by opting for a tighter, mad-libs style long-form improv, and yes, far less water balloons.
As I enter Gryphon Theatre’s black box space, I have to slink past goggle-wearing Dugdale-Martin who is frozen in an ambitious tableau of clenched teeth and arm raised at the ready. This is already a fun game. I am amused at the audience members who try to make them crack, but aside from the slow lowering of their arm due to fatigue, Dugdale-Martin wins round one. I find it even funnier when the house lights shift. It cues Dugdale-Martin to break their pose, but they are forced to keep frozen as Gryphon Theatre’s pre-recorded health and safety message plays through. The stage is decorated with four strips of brown paper hanging from the ceiling. I interpret these as makeshift Grecian columns and their ancient-vase-inspired (but intentionally not well executed) doodles are an endearing touch. Dugdale-Martin is a confident MC as they introduce the show’s premise – we, the audience are cast as a pantheon of Greek gods, and the improvisors, Rebekah De Roo, Mia Oudes, Timothy Fraser and Anna Barker, are our lowly (nay talented) peasants. The peasants gift their gods with a lunchbox container of water balloons. I count seven in mine. This is already a great revision from last year’s endless buckets as the audience is compelled to make their hits count. The new structure calls Dugdale-Martin to acquire an eclectic list of words from their audience to fill in the blanks of a typical plot from the Greek Hero’s journey. This is a wise choice as it gives the audience stakes in the narrative whilst driving the pace of the show to hit each beat.
The improvisors are likeable with well-matched egos, which bodes well for the power balance that already exists in the audience–performer relationship. Tonight, the story is about heroic cat groomers in a supermarket with Winston Peters and the perils of a looming 2022 Comedy Festival. While timid at first, the audience begins to increase the frequency of balloon throws, demanding the actors come up with a new offer each time. The actors are relentless in following the will of the gods, but this is quite a difficult ask as it’s often their first offer that is most likely to successfully progress the story. I find the MC’s constant shout of ‘new offer’ unnecessary after the first couple of throws, but I do enjoy when Dugdale-Martin comes up with the offer themselves. The improvisers make you feel safe, their enthusiasm unwavering – I give particular props to Oudes for her anthropomorphic sexually-charged slug. The show certainly provides some interesting commentary on audience autonomy as I watch a fair few of the audience members donate their balloons to those more confident gods among us. I feel caught up in wanting to throw the balloon at the right moment but also not wanting to look like a fool if I miss during a moment of silence. It’s this tension, however, that compels me to sit on the edge of my seat the entire show waiting for my moment. The concept is simplistic, but it’s exhilarating.
A minorly confusing aspect to the show is when the stage gets hit with a milk-filled balloon. I expect this to trigger an invited cacophony of balloon throwing, but instead the lights dim to a blue wash and a loud epic soundtrack is played. Chaos of some kind does ensue, but I can’t hear it or see it over the lights and music. This only happens twice, and the second time it ends the show – which I suspect is largely due to time constraints. Regardless, the show has kept the same electric energy and audience agency of its predecessor whilst providing the audience a far more satisfying structure to follow. I leave the theatre feeling energised and grateful that Fringe is the perfect platform for shows like these to better themselves amongst enthusiastic and willing audiences. I’d encourage New Zealand Theatre Live to keep reworking the show and potentially find a convention that would allow the improvisers to take the power back if the moment called for it.
MILK OF THE GODS! is on at 10pm until Saturday the 12 March at Gryphon Theatre. Get your tickets from the Fringe website and wear some water-resistant clothes in case the allocated seating puts you in the front row.
Author’s note: The cast and crew of this production are my friends, and Sean Dugdale-Martin is a fellow Art Murmurs reviewer. I have endeavoured to provide an honest review, but if you have any feedback, or find bias in this review, please don’t hesitate to comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.