Left – Mitchell Butel, Alan Flower & Laura Murphy. Cover – Mitchell Butel, Alan Flower & Laura Murphy. Photos – Phil Erbacher
Set upon a literal stairway to heaven, a pristine white couch with fluffy, cloud-shaped pillows stands host to a spectacle that is somewhere between a talk show, a telethon and an infomercial, starring none other than the Lord Almighty God!
The Creator, it seems, has grown weary of people abusing and misinterpreting the ten commandments that he passed down to Moses, and feels He needs to give them a bit of an update for the modern age. To make sure the message comes across this time, He has decided to deliver them in person, through the venue of theatre and in the physical body of, as he tells us outright, award-winning local actor Mitchell Butel.
Flanked by two archangels Gabriel and Michael, God considers Himself something of a raconteur and proceeds to outline His new rules for human conduct, in the form of a peppy stage presentation, complete with slides, asides, jokes, some transubstantiation, and more than a few displays of His “wroth problem”. There is some clear favouritism going on in the Heavenly Host, as the glamorous Gabriel plays teacher’s pet while the schlubby Michael dashes about the auditorium with a microphone, ostensibly fielding questions for God from the audience. This often puts him on the receiving end of the Almighty’s Old Testament side when the questions are too impudent.
Because they may say that “God is good”, but you wouldn’t know it from watching the way He carries on here…
An Act of God is an irreverently camp, mostly quite light and jokey take on the premise of personifying the Judeo-Christian God with a characterisation which befits the wild inconsistency of His behaviour across the Old and New Testaments. It reaches the only logical conclusion to perhaps the most basic question any child raised with religion will ask: “why does God let bad things happen to good people?”. The answer is not, according to the personification of the Heavenly Father presented here, who quips that it’s “to even out all the good things that happen to bad people”, but rather for a deeper, scarier reason – God is pretty messed up.
In describing with relish his flooding of the world and laughing at the absurdity of taking the idea of “two of every animal” seriously as literal history, God meanders through His sporadic recollections of the history of His creation and the ways He has seen fit to help and hinder the development of those highest of His creations, Man. It is only in recounting His “relationship” with Abraham and the near-miss determination of having the man slay his own son that God comes to admit that “there is something seriously wrong with me”.
For the most part, An Act of God is a witty play that rests on the charm of its performers and the rapid-fire application of its arch turns of phrase and theologically-informed zingers. For example, God irritably explains that masturbation is a sin simply because “I have to watch everyone doing it”, that He is flattered but also annoyed by people killing in His name since He clearly doesn’t need any help wiping people out Himself, or complaining of the presumptuousness of panhandling prayers that should “stop imposing on my omnipotence while insulting my omniscience!”
In some respects David Javerbaum’s play is actually most interesting when it isn’t trying quite so hard to be funny and actually digs a little deeper into some of the questions it poses. Although not wholly original, the idea of portraying God Himself as a relatable human persona who is an erratic, cruel, narcissistic, self-admittedly racist and sexist arsehole, more in line with the venal and flawed pantheistic gods of Greek myth is an intriguing one. This is especially so considering He is defined as per monotheistic tradition as the literal creator of the universe who knows all and can do anything without limit. When the play turns to comparatively more serious moments such as God’s self-examination over His tormenting of Abraham, Javerbaum actually touches on some quite moving and interesting popcultural twists on theology. Nowhere is this more striking than when God is relating the story of Jesus from the perspective of an initially disapproving but ultimately humbled Father of a literal celestial Son, made flesh at his own self-sacrificial behest.
In essence psychoanalysing God, at its core this is quite an intriguing, even provocative idea, but sadly one that is generally eschewed in favour of more frivolous gags and groaners of biblical puns. Although you are almost guaranteed to laugh loud and often in this show, one can’t help but feel the nagging sense of somewhat squandered potential.
Lightly adapted for local audiences, the show is co-directed by Richard Carroll and the star, Mitchell Butel, who also pitched the show to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company. For whatever shortcomings Javerbaum’s script may have, its greatest strengths certainly lie in this duo, with a cleanly directed staging showcasing the prodigious charm and talents of Butel. Ably assisted by the deadpan Alan Flower as the put-upon Michael and the vivacious Laura Murphy as the smug Gabriel, Butel brings his abundant stage presence to bear in a role he clearly is passionate about. Few could pull off being this unlikable and captivatingly funny at the same time, and he performs Him with aplomb.
Not for those seeking a comedic revelation on the road to their own theatrical Damascus, and certainly not for the self-seriously devout, this is a flamboyantly funny mainstream comedy, with a few genuinely thought-provoking moments sprinkled in that will certainly entertain most punters looking for some good laughs on a night out.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company presents
An Act of God
by David Javerbaum
Director Richard Carroll and Mitchell Butel
Venue: Eternity Playhouse | 39 Burton street, Darlinghurst NSW
Dates: 2 – 25 Feb 2018
Tickets: $38 - $54