When Bruce Horak puts on his gross, lump-covered gold lamé body suit, he becomes Cancer for a night.
The narcissistic, rocking character is the star of This is Cancer, a show that brings a difficult subject to the stage with comedy and songs. Cancer, the character, boasts of being the world's most popular figure and counts his internet hits with glee, until his realization that everyone, in fact, hates him. The moment triggers a journey of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, ultimately, acceptance.
Horak, a Torontonian now living in Vancouver while working with Monster Theatre, has been performing This is Cancer since 2006. When he went about learning the art of clowning in 2005, a mentor of his encouraged him to go "where the fear is" - and cancer is something that always scared Horak.
"It's a very unique approach to the subject matter, as it were," he told the Now in a phone interview. "It often gets billed as a comedy, which seems to turn people off, actually. You say the word 'cancer' and the last thing they want to do is laugh about it."
Horak, however, prefers to venture into such dark places with a flashlight. Diagnosed with cancer of the retina as a baby, he was left legally blind and, later in life, used humour as a way to cope with disease.
"My father was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and passed away in 2003," Horak explained, "and through his journey with cancer he took kind of a lighthearted approach to it. So this show is a bit of a tribute to him and his style, but also my own."
The production of This is Cancer he'll bring to Surrey Arts Centre on March 15 and 16 is a solo show (tickets $30/$33 via 604-501-5566 and tickets.surrey.ca). A larger version of the satirical cabaret includes a live band called The Inoperables, which has rocked crowds at Fringe festivals across the country.
After each show, Horak leads a question-and-answer session with audiences.
"It's kind of a decompression period for people afterward," he said.
"The reaction can be angry, yes, and there's room for that, too. That anger is not directed at the show, certainly - it's directed more at the character."
Horak says the real struggle is to get people to come see the show.
"It's not light subject matter, and it's something that touches people in different ways," he said. "We know there are people who aren't ready for it. We don't sell it as anything other than what it is. We're adamant that if you're going to come see this show, you have to be ready for what you're about to see."
At one point in the interactive show, an audience member is invited on stage to whack Cancer with a foam bat.
"The person I bring up will have a personal relationship (with cancer) and will want to engage in a very physical way," Horak related. "I don't shy away from that stuff at all - it's all part of what this show can do for people. It's also part of the risk, because I'm essentially playing an effigy here, so I have to be ready and willing to be burned."