Once upon a time, when young people still derived most of their information from the printed word, schoolteachers often assigned W.H.D. Rouse's Gods, Heroes and Men of Ancient Greece to initiate their pupils into the world of Greek mythology. Rouse's tales of valor and romance may have been somewhat simplified, but they sufficed at least until high-school Latin, when students advanced to Edith Hamilton's headier Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes—or retreated to the typecast Olympus of Ray Harryhausen's 1981 Clash of the Titans, with Olivier as Zeus and Ursula Andress as Aphrodite.
But no matter how one attains the exposure, Greek myths have a timeless attraction, whether strictly as adventure or as parables of elemental human emotion. So even if People's Branch Theatre artistic director Ross Brooks' new play offers a mostly lighthearted swipe at the godly pantheon, he clearly shares affection for their legacy, along with some sympathy for their displacement by the age of Christianity. His Three Gods Walk Into a Bar makes a playful inquiry into why and how the Greek gods simply stopped...being.
Playwright Brooks stations Zeus, Hera, Dionysus and Hermes at a nicely appointed watering hole on Olympus (where a KingBilly flyer can be seen plastered to a kiosk!). Their days as deities are numbered, only they don't know it yet. Bellied up to the bar, they grapple more with their personal lives than with the fates of men—and at a level of discourse that falls somewhere between The Honeymooners and Married with Children. Their ruler, mighty Zeus (Benjamin Reed), is revealed as a carouser and womanizer who spends much of his time at the Agora (a word he mispronounces, let's hope on purpose).
His jealous wife, the harridan Hera (Amanda Bailey), suffers his inattention but not silently. His buddy Dionysus (Brad Oxnam), the god of wine, serves as Zeus' enabler, not to mention the bar's proprietor (natch). Entering and leaving the scene, usually breathlessly, is Hermes (Laura Marsh), the messenger to the gods. This fleet beacon of bad tidings arrives bearing the news that sets off the play's action—that a certain bearded ex-carpenter is about to change their lives.
Act 1 establishes a good-natured satirical sensibility that reduces the gods to mere mortals. It's competently structured, but the sitcom-like interplay (call it Grecian formula?) only mildly piques the viewer's curiosity about where the story is headed. Act 2's answer is more godly infighting, a farcical sexual encounter, some explication of the history of gods, and finally, the arrival of the new deity on the block—Jesus, who finds a suddenly more sober Zeus ready to discuss and debate issues of faith, free will and the consequences of personal choice. The coming King leaves his dethroned colleague with a theological pat on the back: "Those we remember never die."
Three Gods' plot line is thin, and Brooks' japery relies too much on punning god references and cheesy bits of stage business. As a consequence, the performances are uniformly broad. While the text gives him little room for subtlety, Reed works the macho buffoon routine fairly successfully, except for his more serious turn at the conclusion. Bailey provides her usual strong presence, but while she capably plays both Hera's hard and soft sides, she still seems a good actress in search of a better role. Oxnam assumes the mantle of thankless sidekick with admirable fortitude and makes of it what he can. Marsh's chattery, hyperactive Hermes is funny sometimes, and the deft comic sound effects don't hurt. But she often appears to be striving too hard to achieve not enough, mostly because of the script's limitations.
The supporting players prove able. Tony Morton is a newer face to the Nashville stage, but he's clearly an experienced performer and, as Jesus, he delivers an appropriately measured and comfortable portrayal. As the archangel Michael, Adrienne Hite stumbled once or twice over her lines but still commanded the stage.
Clayton Landiss' bar set is noticeably appealing, and as such is a rarity for a PBT production. Brittany McManus' costumes are both effectively simple (togas and such) and cartoonishly clever (Hermes and Michael). Mitch Massaro's lighting tends toward the garish, though attaining nuance at The Belcourt might pose an untoward challenge for any designer.
Three Gods Walk Into a Bar has a legit jumping-off point, a game cast of troupers, and some educated wit in Brooks' clash of the titans and religions in collision. The struggle here is sustaining the humor for two hours. People's Branch makes an Olympian effort—but alas, it yields few medals.
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