First things first: the Tarragon Theatre mainspace is now licensed. That means that during its current production, The God That Comes, starring Hawksley Workman—which has set up the space like a dark, sultry 1930s cabaret with crystal chandeliers, long white tablecloths, and deep crimson curtains—you can sip a glass of red while one of Canada’s best rockers uses his beautiful voice to scream into your face.
This isn’t to say that you need to be under the influence to enjoy The God That Comes, co-written and directed by Christian Barry of Halifax’s 2b Theatre Company, but it would be more thematically appropriate. Joined onstage by a drum kit stage right, a piano and megaphone stage left, a microphone centre stage, and three mannequin heads along the back (one in a soldier’s hat, one with a feather boa, and one in a blonde wig), the 39-year-old Workman introduces the show by telling a story based primarily on Euripides’ The Bacchae. In it, a king becomes jealous when his citizens, slaves, and even his mother spend their time indulging in sex, drinking, dancing, and hunting animals in the mountains as a form of worship to the god of wine, Bacchus—the god who, when the time is right, comes (yes, in both senses of the word). But when the king captures the god in order to discover the roots of the power he has over the city’s subjects, the king is convinced to disguise himself and travel up the mountain to see the debauchery first-hand and meets a gruesome end at the hands of his mother.
Workman, dressed flamboyantly in a military jacket and holding a glass of wine, makes this opening monologue downright delicious. He possesses an air of confidence and a natural stage presence, and his highly trained voice rises and falls like that of a seasoned orator. He’s funny and charming and completely intoxicating—and that’s even before the music’s started.
After the story is over, Workman breaks into a song cycle that re-tells the Greek myth in greater detail, expanding the story into a cautionary tale of the dangers that come from withholding love and sex. The king, it is revealed, is a closeted homosexual. And his possessive relationship with his mother eliminated the possibility that she would achieve sexual satisfaction. Workman plays all three characters and all the instruments involved, looping his tracks and vocals when needed, and the music powerfully articulates emotions that dialogue alone could not have. (Musical theatre at its best.) The opening song, which features a repeating chorus of “You know what it is that makes us, you know what it is that breaks us,” a loud and hard drum beat, and vocals with extended vowels, sounds much like the kind of ritualistic chant that could drive any law-abiding resident into a frenzy. Songs featuring both mother and son are so tender and sad that it’s easy to forget the supernatural elements here—at its heart, the story is one that’s profoundly human. It’s possible you’ll never before have been brought so close to tears by a rock show.
Barry’s direction adds a few ingenious elements to the production—the addition of a baby’s mobile made out of plastic toy soldiers to a scene in which the mother is singing to her infant son (the soldier’s hat held like a baby in Workman’s arms), for example, and a crazily clever use of a harmonica solo as Bacchus entices the king to embrace a different side of himself. These moments are not only comedically effective—they ensure that the story is never lost, even when the melodies are in the spotlight.
The God That Comes has already been on quite a journey since it premiered at the 2012 SummerWorks Festival here in Toronto—it has travelled to Calgary, Vancouver, Whitehorse, Pittsburgh, Denmark, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Next up is the very competitive Edinburgh Fringe Festival. But after a run like this on home turf, it’s likely that The God That Comes will be met with the success it deserves. Even in a month already filled with an overwhelmingly large and diverse offering of musical events, including the ones at Luminato and NXNE, The God That Comes is a show that can’t be missed.