Compelling, unflinching & charming storytelling in deeply poignant & hilariously funny Huff

Cliff Cardinal in Huff - photo by akipari
Cliff Cardinal in Huff – photo by akipari

“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear.”

Better late than never; I was originally scheduled to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Cliff Cardinal’s Huff a week ago, but got grounded by a nasty cold – so I was very happy to have a chance to see it last night. Directed by Karin Randoja and currently running at Aki Studio, Huff is an incredibly strong opener for Native Earth’s 2015-16 season.

Last night’s performance featured a pre-show chat with the design team: Jackie Chau (set and costume), Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and Alex Williams (sound). Moderated by Native Earth’s Managing Director Isaac Thomas, the group talked about their early influences and what drew them to theatre production; and how a history of working together brings an organic rhythm and shorthand in communication, as well as a sense of trust (and the camaraderie was evident in the exchange between them). The design elements are integrated in such a way that if one were missing, there would be a hole in the production – light, sound and space equally important in telling this story.

When asked about the personal importance of telling the story of Huff, Chau highlighted the universal and resonant themes of loss, pain and forgiveness; Ramsay pointed out that it’s important to tell stories that don’t often get told/heard, and how Huff goes beyond what you might see in a news headline to the emotional core of the experience. Williams, a First Nations ally who keeps in touch with FN issues and supports FN productions, has a great deal of respect for this work – and pointed out the interconnectedness of the creative, intellectual and emotional in Huff, even through the play’s theme of disconnection.

Once the stage has cleared in preparation for the performance to begin, you take it in. Four flats, with a flickering projection of a Vacant sign on the one down stage right; centre stage, on the floor, a painted circle like the moon, transected with branch-like appendages. And within the space, a case of beer, an overturned chair, a lone beer bottle, an ottoman. Simple, but evocative – and made to stand alone, as well as to travel well for the production’s tour dates.

Three young brothers struggle with neglect, abuse and addiction after the death of their mother, spending more time at an abandoned motel than they do at home or school. Told from the point of view of the middle brother, Wind – performed by Cree playwright/actor Cardinal – Huff is a one-man show with a cast of many characters that incorporates Indigenous mythology, storytelling and first-person narrative. The opening scene is by turns darkly funny, heart-pounding and raw – leaving no room for doubt that this is some serious shit. Cardinal turns it from harrowing to hilarious with puckish mischief and charm, a dynamic that continues throughout the telling of this tale.

Cardinal’s performance is razor sharp and direct, but also engaging and irreverently funny – and he regularly breaks the fourth wall to yank us into the story, making the audience part of Wind’s world. This dynamic adds to the tension of the piece – and forces us to recognize that, as witnesses, we are culpable in our passivity and in our actions. The effect is both fascinating and disconcerting. [Those of you who’ve read cowbell before know that I don’t like spoilers, so you’ll be getting none here. You’ll just have to go see for yourselves.] And ever present, watchful and full of shenanigans is Trickster.

Adeptly spinning out scenes and moments from Wind’s troubled, hallucination-filled fantasy world, Cardinal fluidly weaves in and out of each character. Protective of his younger brother (a wide-eyed, adorable and magical child), but caught in the middle between him and their cruel, abusive older brother, and their largely absent, frustrated father, Wind vacillates between disconnection and revelation – trying to keep the darkness at bay with beer, gas sniffing and dangerous games, but ultimately undone by the growing awareness that he can’t get away. The appearance of the boys’ hapless, put-upon step-mother; their straight-talking, pragmatic grandmother; their uptight, ineffectual and punitive schoolteacher; goofy, elf-like friend; and the icy cool and cocky local radio DJ inject comic relief to the tale, as well as insights on the harsh realities of everyday life on the reservation. Ultimately, Wind’s journey leads him to the darkest place in order for him to see the light.

So next time you see a high or drunk native person, or read about a native kid who died huffing gasoline, don’t be so quick to judge – and stop to think about what horrors brought them to that place.

Huff is a compelling piece of storytelling, unflinching in its harsh reality, charming in its magic, deeply poignant and funny.

Huff continues at Aki Studio until October 25; then it’s off on an eight-city national tour (check back in at the Huff page on the Native Earth site for details). Get out to see this. Click here for the Aki Studio run tickets and location info.

You can keep up with Native Earth Performing Arts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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Author: life with more cowbell

Arts/culture social bloggerfly & Elwood P. Dowd disciple. Likes playing with words. A lot. Toronto

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