Review: ASSASSINATING THOMSON, at the Blyth Festival

by Lynn on September 20, 2021

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Harvest Stage, Blyth Festival, Blyth, Ont. Until Oct. 2,

Created and performed by Bruce Horak

Originally directed by Ryan Gladstone

Assassinating Thomson is a murder-mystery, a hymn to art and creating it and a compelling lesson in beautiful story-telling, all created by gifted performer, Bruce Horak.

The show asks: what really happened to painter Tom Thomson when he went out in his canoe on Canoe Lake July 8, 1917. His bloated body was found days later with a gash in his head. How did he die? Was he killed (the title says plenty)? Who killed him? Bruce Horak has theories.  

The set is simple. There is a drop cloth neatly spread out on the stage. The cloth is held down by rocks in the corners and on the edges. On the cloth is an easel with a long narrow frame placed on it. To the side of that is a table with stuff on it and below are tube-bottles.

Bruce Horak saunters out and introduces himself and the show. Horak sets up the story of Tom Thomson and his fascination with the artist and his short career. Thomson only painted for five years but produced hundreds of paintings, mainly of his beloved outdoors, in Northern Ontario. Horak has had a many varied career as an improvisor, writer, comedian, storyteller, painter etc. He says that as is his habit with the show, he will be painting the audience as he tells the story. We find out at the end that he will then auction off the painting and the money will go to a local charity. Lovely.

His palette is on the table to the side of the easel as are his brushes and the tubes under the table are paint tubes that he will use to squirt the paint on the palette. There was something else Bruce Horak said, oh, what was it, what was it….oh yes, Bruce Horak is legally blind. He lost one eye to cancer when he was a kid (a genetic disease) and his father asked the doctors to try and save the other eye and they did. But he has 9% vision in it—like looking through a tiny key-hole. He had us all bend our index finger into the side of the thumb and look through the tiny opening in the finger. That’s generally what Bruce Horak can see. Woow.

As Horak painted, looked, observed us, drew, painted etc. he told us of the tangled story of Tom Thomson and his love of the outdoors. He told of possible enemies, a possible girlfriend, various theories, strange doings with the undertaker, coffins that might be empty and all manner of theories. All delivered with a leisurely yet compelling pace, that of a true story-teller.

He also talked of the theories of art and its components—space, relationships, shadow and light etc. He talked of being obsessed by Tom Thomson, trying to find his burial place. And all the while, Horak painted, observed and talked. He talked of knowing when the painting was finished. Fascinating.

When we was finished, he turned the canvas around to show us what he had painted. Amazing. Then he auctioned the painting off for charity. I did not doubt Horak was actually painting that actual painting, I just thought that since there might be inklings of doubt he might have shown the empty canvas to us at the beginning. I think that contrasted with the finished painting would have ramped up the wow factor. In any case, Assassinating Thomson is a fascinating show of wit, imagination, conjuring and storytelling. When we were leaving at the end, I heard a smarmy soul winging on facts that Horak left out. I did not turn and say, “It’s a play and a work of imagination, get it. Horak said as much. Pay attention. And drive safe.” Sheesh some people think stories are all true! What is true here is that Bruce Horak is one dandy story-teller and painter. See the show.

Presented by the Blyth Festival

Runs until: Oct. 2.

Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission.

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