Upon entering Tapere Iti stage at Te Auaha, the audience are asked to contribute a single word which will influence the show, writing on a piece of card and putting it in a hat. This reviewer is running a little late so he didn’t get the chance to put in his 10 cents, but that may be for the best. We are greeted by a hooded figure who plays host and narrator for the evening, a difficult role held by WIT veteran Ali Little. As the show begins, Little pulls back her hood and gives us an opening spiel before summoning her “demons” (The cast) to the stage. We too are cast as “phantasms” to witness the evening’s events.
Each player then takes a card from the hat and gives us a short poetic couplet to introduce it to the audience. Two of them fittingly draw the word ‘raven’ sparking the first genuine giggles of the night. From here Little takes the lead and pushes the cast into one long-form tale. Each scene is set up through narration and then played out for us in a twisting tale of geometry professors, nettles and temptation all ending in death and despair. It was a wild ride, but this is an improv show so I won’t dwell on the content as it will be different every night. What is important is form and technique.
Technically the players are well tuned, and well prepared. Their genre knowledge carries them through a dramatic style of performance with apparent confidence and they largely listen and respond to every offer with precision and generosity. There are some lovely moments which emerge out of this. In one scene three characters laugh one after the other in an identical tone which prompts the audience to join in and then laugh at themselves. In another the narrator simply observes “her shoes were wet” sparking Alice (Hayley Cherryblossom) to squelch her way across stage inspiring delight and surprise in the crowd. It is these moments which I love about improvised theatre. It’s the little details and side-remarks being honoured with absolute commitment which are joyous to watch in a well-oiled improv machine and with the exception of one significant offer (two professors age-old rivalry) being dropped, WIT’s cogs turn smoothly throughout.
It is the form where I think the most challenges in the show emerge. This is mostly because they are attempting something very difficult. Creating a 60 minute story with 7-8 characters in as specific a style as gothic horror is a hefty task and overall I think they give it more than a fair stab. On this particular night and, in my experience, on most nights of an improv show, having 7-8 players tends to mean too many characters to give meaningful roles to. I’d like to give props to Tristram Domican, who enters only for a couple of short cameos, for making the bold choice not to jam himself onto an already full stage. This is one of those underrated skills in improvisation and I think one or two more of Domican’s cast mates could have followed his lead and left some room for other characters to flesh out and grow
Having said that, sometimes you might need all of them and so I think keeping the cast large is not a bad idea, but I would give them other conventions to hook onto so they can contribute without disrupting the flow of the main story. Our first introduction to the cast is via poetry, a form which is then never seen again. I wonder if one or two players could have provided poetry breaks to cap and divide scenes and give their cast-mates a little space to construct their next offer.
Another potential avenue for addition to form would be to set something up which takes some of the workload off of the narrator. While Little does a wonderful job of driving the story forward, her role is confusing at times. She seems to switch between providing internal monologue for her past self (the centre character of the story), providing third person narration, and commenting on the scene as it passes (side comments like “actually his name was…” correcting small errors). Little’s internal monologue commentary was delightful but possibly too much for one person. I wonder if this convention could have been provided for more characters, instead of the central figure alone, by the supporting cast? As it is such a Poe-ish device, it would seem fitting to include it in the form of the show rather than lumping it in with general narration. A couple of these tweaks could add some depth to the format and spread the workload a little more evenly while giving players a genuine alternative to throwing another character in the mix.
Poe’d is a valiant attempt at a very difficult thing and I had a lovely time watching it. If you’re considering viewing it yourself, you should know that it is mostly dramatic with the odd funny thrown in, not your classic quickfire-gag improv show. This is my kind of improv and made a great way to start the fringe festival.
Poe’d is on at Te Auaha’s Tapere Iti until March 2nd. You can book your tickets and view the full fringe programme on the NZ Fringe Festival website. WIT will be back in fringe with Battle of WITs March 11-14.