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Vancouver Theatre: The God that Comes

Hawksley Workman. Photo by Trudy Lee.The God that Comes
Starring Hawksley Workman
Conceived and directed by Christian Barry
Created by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry
2b Theatre Company
Historic Theatre at the Cultch,
Nov 13 to 24, 2013

Vancouver, BC: In a non-stop 75 minutes of narration, music and song, this virtuoso performer presents the story of Euripides'  The Bacchae as a one man rock opera. Since the cast list of The Bacchae consists of 8 characters not to mention the 15 person Greek Chorus, it's quite a feat that he undertakes.
The setting is Thebes, a city  in ancient Boeotia in central Greece, ruled by Pentheus, grand-son of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes. Cadmus has four daughters: Agave is the mother of Pentheus.  As legend tells us, Agave's sister Semele is fancied by Zeus, who gets her pregnant, much to the fury of Hera, Zeus' long suffering wife. Semele gets blown up by Zeus' lightning flash (that's another story) but Zeus saves her unborn son, who becomes Dionysus, God of Wine and orgies and other fun happenings. Incidentally a third daughter is Ino, who is the wicked stepmother from whom Helle and Phrixus are rescued by the Golden ram - connecting to the naming of the Hellespont and the story of Jason and the Argonauts. (See my story of the Black Sea Cruise: Batumi, Georgia).  All right then; I do love the ancient myths but that's more information than is needed right now, so back to Pentheus.

Pentheus is a very law-and-order type, commander of the Theban army.  Dionysus rocks up to visit the city but his cousin, Pentheus mocks and denies his divinity and won't acknowledge his powers. Dionysus infuses the women of the city, including Agave, with his spirit (spirits maybe?) and they take off to Mount Cithaeron. Pentheus is outraged and sends his soldiers up there to put a stop to what he hears are wild  bacchanalia but he later confesses to Dionysus that he is curious about what actually goes on. Dionysus suggests he disguise himself by dressing as a woman and  Pentheus heads up the mountain. Bewitched by Dionysus, the women tear Pentheus to pieces  believing he is a wild animal.  Agave believes she carries the head of a lion cub. With the horrified recognition that it is really the head of  Pentheus  that she holds, she realizes that she has actually killed her own son. Agave goes into exile, as does Cadmus, and the royal house of Cadmus  no longer rules Thebes.

For this production, much of the floor of the theatre was given over to cabaret style seating, chairs arranged around small round tables. The audience was encouraged to get in the spirit of the show - drinks could be brought into the theatre. 

Wine glass in hand, Workman engages the audience in  a prologue that gives the audience the whole gruesome plot (succinctly written by Hannah Moscovitch - East of Berlin, The Russian Play & Mexico City, Little One ) and then he launches into an hour plus of music and theatrics. Like in the ancient Greek theatre, the audience now already knows the plot and must simply watch to see how this artist allows it to unfold. Workman tells the tale through embodying all characters in his solo body on stage and with his ability to play many and multiple instruments. Instruments are found in surprising locations: A finger piano in a hat represents a mother singing a lullaby to her baby; a harmonica in place of genitalia allows for a musical blowjob; and two large sticks and Workman’s feet on several occasions provide a stomping rhythm that drives the action to climax.

The set is simple and made up primarily of instruments. On the wall hangs three dummy heads – one with a blonde wig (to represent “the mother” Agave), one with a military cap (to represent “the King” Pentheus), and one with a bright red boa (to represent “the God”, Dionysus or Bacchus). These minor costume pieces get used to great effect as they allow Workman to transform into then various characters as he goes.

The standout feature of this production is Workman’s talent;  multiple instruments, a huge vocal range, different voices, and a true showmanship are hallmarks of his musical trade and they work to great effect in this show. A friend commented that her only problem with the play was that he was really the only thing to look at on stage and when the stage dimmed for transitions, there was nothing to see. I think this play is more about the aural sensations, and in those dimmed moments the looping of music filled the visual gaps.

The double entendre of the title and allusions like "ukelady boy", the pounding rhythms, bright lights and full volume music let you know that this is not a show for the fainthearted. Unlike the Bacchae,  I don't drink so I can dance - but a glass of wine would have gone down well for this show. We enjoyed a pleasant pre-show dinner at the Absinthe Bistro, a couple of blocks south on Commercial Drive, but in my self-righteous state of sobriety, I didn't share in the wine at our table.