This Is Cancer & Laughter Is Pretty Good Medicine

bruce horak as cancer

Festivals like Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival are terrific for fostering new Atlantic Canadian work but they are also equally exciting for providing the opportunity for Halifax audiences to see world-class productions that have toured to great acclaim across the country and around the world. This year, Supernova brings us Bruce Horak’s brilliantly funny show This is Cancer from Toronto, which sold out its runs at the Edmonton Fringe Festival in 2010 and 2011 and won Horak a Betty Mitchell Award for his performance in Calgary in 2007. This show will most likely be a Festival Sell Out so you should all do your best to book your tickets right away and make sure to come down to the Neptune Studio Theatre this weekend because you will not want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to meet Cancer face to face.

This is Cancer is a bouffon show, essentially the darker and more grotesque side of clown, where Bruce Horak transforms himself into a personification of the deadly disease, who looks a bit like a demonized hobo version of Lumiere from Beauty and The Beast. Cancer wants nothing more than to seduce you and to be loved and adored by his public. The interesting part of this show is that despite his lumpy and sinister outward appearance, cancer is oddly charming with his smooth British accent and affable charisma. Cancer is suave in his ability to sing witty little songs (reminiscent of Danny Elfman tunes in Tim Burton films) about how “coo coo” he is for us and our brains and our lungs and our colons and our stomachs and our esophagi and our eyes. Cancer makes us laugh despite the fact that he is, in fact a murderous bastard, who has probably taken someone that every single person in the audience loves far too soon. And yet, we still laugh.

One of the things that makes CANCER so ominous is that it feeds off what we don’t know. There is nothing tangible to fight, nothing to shake our fists at but our own bodies, but here, Horak has made Cancer into something concrete that we can shout at and boo like the villain in a melodrama, or, as in the case of one lucky audience member, we can pelt him with pool noodles and watch him cower and fall to the floor. We are given some control and an object to direct our anger, sadness and fear. In being able to laugh at cancer, we empower ourselves, and that becomes beautifully cathartic.

The show was written by Horak and the show’s director Rebecca Northan and together they have done a terrific job of juxtaposing a great bit of dark comedy with truly moving and honest moments that keep grounding this show back in its more somber roots and then quickly bringing the audience back toward the laughter. Bruce Horak is a cancer survivor, having kicked the ass of bilateral retinoblastoma when he was just a baby, which left him legally blind. He also lost his father to the disease several years ago. This very personal story is woven cleverly into the narrative of the performance.

Horak is a brilliant performer. His ease in improvising with the audience creates an environment where the unexpected is always possible and most impressive of all, he imbues Cancer with so many wonderfully human attributes that he becomes a fascinating three dimensional character. At times the audience is empathizing with this hideous being that everyone hates and rejects, sometimes he is delightfully playful and childlike, sometimes he is a stand up comedian on fire, and at one point he takes Charlie Rhindress, Festival Artistic Producer, hostage. One of the most moving moments of the show for me was when Horak, as Cancer, paid homage to Sammy Davis Jr. while doing an impression of him singing “Mr. Bojangles”. It was an incredibly tender moment. Cancer’s defense of his heinous actions is always that he loved people, often literally, to death and it is so superbly apparent during this number that he is lavishing Sammy with love through his music. It’s a lovely moment that becomes more disturbing as you think on it.

As a director, Rebecca Northan has shaped this show like something of an old Vaudeville Cabaret, an ambiance that works perfectly to showcase Cancer the Celebrity. Horak’s movements always seem entirely spontaneous, he makes great use of all the space afforded to him and the musical numbers, with musical direction by Waylen Miki, are choreographed with panache and gusto. He is aided in his endeavours by his lovely assistant Lucinda, played with perfect comic timing and sexiness by Christy Bruce.

Ultimately, This is Cancer is a play about inspiration, about the way we choose to live our lives while we are here, rather than expiration, and the joy in that is both welcome and contagious.

If you would like further proof of Bruce Horak’s awesomeness, don’t just take my word for it: check out this interview with him and Cancer on CNN!

This Is Cancer plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, next door to The Argyle Grill) as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Theatre Festival at the following times:

Friday May 18th at 9:00pm

Saturday May 19th at 7:00pm

Sunday May 20th at 2:00pm.

For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429.7070 or click this link right here. You don’t want to miss this one!

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