THE GOD THAT COMES written by Hawksley Workman and Christian Barry (2b theatre company). At the Tarragon (30 Bridgman). Runs to June 29. $40. 416-531-1827. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Hawksley Workman kicks off his powerful solo rock opera retelling of Euripides' Bacchae with a dramatic monologue summarizing the plot. This helps those unfamiliar with the myth - about a warrior king threatened by a new hedonistic cult - but it also quickly establishes that the Juno-winning singer/songwriter can act, a question always hanging over the heads of rockers making their theatrical debut.
The show's 12 songs, penned by Workman and Dora Award-winning director Christian Barry, incorporate elements of glam rock, folk and cabaret, and feature Workman accompanying himself on an array of instruments, switching between guitar, keys and a full drum kit. Besides this impressive agility, the songs also showcase Workman's wide vocal range and raw energy. When slow-building opener You Know What It Is hits its climax, the massive sound would easily fill a venue twice the size.
Workman plays three characters in the tragic tale - the city's military-minded ruler, the ruler's mother and the flamboyant new god in town - using a hat, a wig and a feather boa to indicate which he's playing. (Three mannequin heads and one headless mannequin take on various supporting roles.)
The set and costumes are minimal. Workman's instruments dominate the stage; the songs are clearly the focus. But what is there gets used in clever and evocative ways, as in a very suggestive harmonica solo that generates roars of laughter.
Workman and Barry supply the naughty humour expected of a show about the hedonistic god of wine and sex, but marshal the playful innuendo and punny one-liners toward deeper, darker themes. In the character of the city's ruler, the relationship between sex and power is front and centre. The different political uses of sex during war and peace are explored, as well as the ruler's complicated relationship with his mother, who's begun participating in the nightly debauchery.
Fans of Workman will feel right at home - the theatricality that always marked his music has just been dialed up here - while those discovering him for the first time will leave wowed by his musical dexterity and the sheer power of his larger-than-life presence.