He's bringing sexy Bacchus.
In his new cabaret, The God that Comes, Hawksley Workman writhes and grinds, drips and squeals as he plays the God of ecstasy and wine in a fun and feisty retelling of the ancient Greek tragedy, The Bacchae.
Back in the original playwright Euripides's era, theatre was born as part of a festival that honoured Bacchus a.k.a. Dionysus. Somewhere along the line to today, however, rock 'n' roll took over worshipping the groin and the grain – while theatre's focus moved northward to the brain. (I blame George Bernard Shaw.)
The Bacchanalian impulse – and attempts to suppress it that come from within and without – has been a constant theme of Juno-winner Workman's music, right from his 1999 debut, For Him and the Girls.
In Paper Shoes, a song from that album that became a theatre-school anthem, the young Workman sang about the joys of being naked: "I still like to feel the wind on all my soft places, but you – you haven't killed that yet, although you've been trying."
That lyric summarizes the tension at the heart of The God That Comes. A king is nervous that the slaves and women in his town – even his own mother – have begun spending their nights holding wine-fuelled orgies at the top of a mountain in honour of the God. He sets out to capture the God and repress the ritual.
In Euripides's play, that king would be Pentheus, his mother Agave, and the God none other than Dionysus himself.
None of their original names are used here, but the general thrust – and there's a lot of thrusting – is the same. After interrogating the God, the king disguises himself as a woman to observe the madness firsthand. Mistaken for a wild animal by drunken revellers, however, he is ripped to pieces – his mother being the one to tear off his head.
No spoiler alert needed: Workman gives a complete summary of the gruesome plot at the top of the show in a prologue written by Hannah Moscovitch. It is definitely needed to follow the narrative loosely threaded through songs that have a glam-rock flavour.
On tunes like If Your Prayer (Is a Song) and The Dress Makes the Man, Workman accompanies himself on drums, keyboards and guitars – though with all the sampling and looping, it sounds like a full band.
When Workman plays the king, he uses a megaphone to give his vocals a militaristic edge, while he slips into his swooping falsetto to sing the mother's part. And the singer-songwriter pulls out all the stops when he transforms into the God, assuming a human form as a "ukelady boy" who strums a ukelele and rides a tiger in skinny jeans. "He look-a lotta like a lady, but with five-o-clock shadey – uke-ukelady boy," he sings, in silly lyrics that channel his inner E.Y. Harburg. (All the songs have been available for download on iTunes since Tuesday, when this long-in-development work had its official world premiere as part of the Enbridge playRites Festival.)
Halifax-based director Christian Barry, who co-created the cabaret with Workman, has added a few simple theatrical elements to it. At the back of the stage, there are mannequin heads – one in a military hat, one a boa, and one a blond wig – representing the three characters in the play. Workman sometimes puts on these costumes pieces, though at times they are just lit with a spotlight to show who is singing.
In one brilliant bit, under a mobile made out of toy soldiers, Workman cradles the military cap in his hands, stroking a thumb piano nestled within, as, in a flashback, the mother sings a lullaby to the baby king. The show could use a little more visual ingenuity like this – especially in the second half, when the jams run on and it turns into more of a one-man band concert.
The effect of putting The Bacchae into a single person's body, ultimately, is to make the story less about a struggle between a king and a God and more about the struggle between order and chaos that lies within each of us. This is how all the Greek myths resonate with us since psychology came along – we no longer speak of Oedipus, but of his complex.
In case you didn't get the point, Workman adds a coda to the work – a tune about drunkenly forgetting a mobile phone filled with nude selfies in the back of a cab and waking up the next morning with remorse. "And you tell yourself you're gonna change," he sings.