Colours in the Storm: Vibrant Individual Elements Result in a Production Whose Parts are Greater than its Sum
Colours in the Storm features many fine elements and some outstanding techniques, but it fails to come together into a cohesive and satisfying whole. Combined with a paint-by-numbers second act, you have a production that’s generally pleasant to look at, but falls far short of being a masterpiece.
The play dramatizes the final years of legendary Canadian artist Tom Thomson’s life, from his first arrival in Algonquin Park in 1912, through his embrace of the natural landscape and his attempts to satisfy his internal vision through painting, to his eventual—and controversial—death in 1917.
Colours in the Storm features a number of outstanding moments that are a joy to watch. Vocally, the cast is incredible. Their solos are all strong and their harmonizing is uplifting. The musical elements help to propel the action forward and only feel forced once: in the second act, there are moments of dialogue repeatedly broken up by song. The resulting pauses aren’t just pregnant, they feel as if they’ve been fully gestated and are heading to school. It’s representative of a second act that feels disjointed and rushed.
Ma-Anne Dionisio steals the show with her performance as Thomson’s Algonquin love interest—and rumoured fiancee—Winnie Trainor. Michael Dufay’s Larry Dixon (who belts out an awe-inspiring solo that completely seems out of character with his chosen speaking voice) and Tim Funnell’s Martin Bletcher provide effective comic relief. And the remaining secondary characters all provide effective dramatic moments, plot development, and context to the story.
Jay Davis’ Tom Thomson suffers in comparison. The play starts with an outstanding opening scene, where Davis stands before a translucent video screen that contrasts the Queen’s Park area of Toronto with the Algonquin set and cast peeking through the background. Thomson literally and metaphorically sheds his Toronto roots (removing his bowler, tie, and suit) and dons his northern garb. Clearly, Thomson is out of sync with the Algonquin natives, but the sense of eagerness to embrace the north and desire to become one with the nature around him feels more goofy than earnest. It’s one thing for the character to be out of sync with the Algonquin natives around him—that makes sense—but it felt like Davis was often out of sync with the production.
And perhaps that’s a result of Colours in the Storm trying to be all things to all people. There’s a historical fiction aspect to it, there’s the musical component, there’s drama, there’s comedy—and there’s a story that feels like it’s intended to be at once a learning opportunity for youth and a dramatic production for adults. For a play about Thomson’s obsession with Algonquin, perhaps the production could have used more focus.
The set and costuming are both stunning and subtle. The simple stage features a pair of slate-like pieces that are deftly moved and shifted to represent different areas, rock formations, and even a canoe. Costume designer Jessica Poirier-Chang cleverly shows the progression of Thomson from his early work to a greater understanding and appreciation of his art through changes in the cast’s clothing. In the first act, all characters are garbed in predominantly sepia clothing, with an ombre styling. In the second act, the ombre style remains, but the characters are now outfitted in more vibrant colours, coinciding with Thomson’s increasing skill and production.
Visual elements play a huge role in the production and are used with great success. The actors themselves add to the visual mosaic, cleverly incorporated into moments where they effectively represent waves or wind. With a simple set, this use of actors as elements was both beautiful and inspiring. A video production that represents the creation of Thomson’s iconic Northern River painting is absolutely breathtaking when first presented in the first act.
Unfortunately, the painting has less impact when the effect is shown again. It’s a flaw repeated throughout a second half that suffers from repetition and blatantly obvious pandering to the story, as characters repeat key phrases from the first act during a scene showing Thomson’s final descent into madness. It’s obviously meant to provide a frame of reference, but you can unfortunately see the “paint-by-numbers” writing under the imagery.
Story-wise, the play focuses on a brief period of Thomson’s life. We watch as he struggles to become an artist—a label he soundly rejects early on—and his frustration stemming from his obsessive quest to capture the environment around him. As well, Colours in the Storm presents Thomson’s death in a much different manner than the official accidental drowning—making it clear that foul play was involved—although, again, the representation was a little ham-fisted in its approach.
There are many exciting elements in Colours in the Storm, but this is not masterpiece—the parts, in many cases, far exceed its sum. And, in the end, it’s an interesting, but disjointed, bit of historical fiction that tries to help us learn more about and appreciate a Canadian artistic legend.