Sunday, November 17, 2013

The God that Comes at the Cultch

Following its workshop presentation at Club PuSh last January (which I wrote briefly about here), Hawksley Workman's The God that Comes has returned to the city, where it is on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre through November 24.

Richly reverberatory (musically, theatrically and politically), The God features Workman, in collaboration with the Halifax-based 2b theatre company's Christian Barry, delivering a one-man, rock-operatic take on Euripedes' Bacchae. Playing all the instruments (including drums, two sets of keyboards, electric and acoustic guitar, ukulele, recorder and, in one especially sybaritic moment, harmonica), Workman also makes canny use of several loop machines, which on a purely practical level allow him time to move from instrument to instrument, or to make a brief costume change. However, against these multiple repeating tracks he can also pitch a voice that in its register, dynamic range and sensual intensity sends each chord of music--in true cabaret and glam rock fashion--directly to the groin.

In this, Workman and Barry follow Nietzsche in distilling the essence of Euripedes' story down to a dialectical opposition between the regulatory governmentality of the Theban boy-king, Pentheus, and the anarchic sexual abandon of a transvestic foreign god, Dionysus. That Dionysus also happens to be Pentheus' cousin is a further complication of kinship exacerbated by the fact that Pentheus' own mother, Agave, has abandoned her domestic duties to follow the god's rites on Mt. Cithaeron. Here, too, this version of the myth is following the standard line of pitting rebellious femininity against repressive masculinity.

And while this might be a somewhat reductive reading of Euripedes' story (Workman and Barry conveniently get rid of Cadmus and Tiresias), playing with these ideological binaries does produce some truly thrilling musical and narrative contrasts. Most stunning in this respect are the duets (if that's the right word) between Pentheus and Agave in "Remember Our Wars" and between Pentheus and Dionysus in "If Your Prayer." In the former Workman sings into a bullhorn as the warrior-king recounts with pleasure the bloodlust of battle, and then switches to a regular microphone and a quasi-falsetto to give us a very different take on those events, with a war-weary mother suggesting she has taken to the hills as a kind of ecstatic mourning. In the latter, Workman seems to be channelling Charles Mee (whom he acknowledges in the program notes, and whose Bacchae 2.1 my students and I will be discussing in class tomorrow) as much as Euripedes, as the song's conditional phrasing suggests, among other things, that Pentheus' political power is just a front for the sexual humiliation he truly craves.

In the end, as Workman sings an epilogue called "They Decided Not to Like Us," there can be no mistaking which side of the Bacchic equation he favours. For Dionysus, we must recall, is not just the god of wine, but also the god of theatre. And Workman is gloriously, unapologetically theatrical. If all else fails there is still this space of the theatre for the outcasts and freaks of society to gather to imagine a different world.


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