In the first minute of Huff, Cliff Cardinal’s darkly funny, harrowing one-man show, he casually explains the process of his character’s attempted suicide via plastic bag to the audience. Breathing in the same breath, over and over again, until you choke. It’s an excellent opening, an indication of the tricky tone of the show and the skill of the main performer. Clocking in at just over an hour, Cardinal and director Karin Randoja plunge the audience into the harsh realities of life on a Canadian Indigenous reserve. It’s not an easy watch, but it will leave you rattled in the best possible way.
Cliff Cardinal gives a tour de force performance, playing around a dozen different characters with no supplementary actors. Using minimal set design and a few rudimentary props, he and Randoja create a scrappy, hostile, but imaginative world, and populate it with memorable characters. Cardinal focuses on a dysfunctional family unit; embodied by Wind, an Indigenous teenage boy, his innocent younger brother Huff, and his disturbed older brother Charles—as well as their manipulative father, struggling step-mother, and protective grandmother. Surreal and increasingly strange presences are introduced, such as the cold radio presenter of Shit Creek Radio—a dreamlike program with an alarming insight into the characters problems—or the sleazy embodiment of the boy’s smell. Many of the characters were coarse and archetypal, and Cardinal wasn’t quite able to give some of them the specificity they needed to transcend this; but the majority were still distinctive and engaging due to Cardinal’s physically and verbally dexterous performance. Wind and Huff are the core of the story, and their relationship is both touching and devastating.
Looming over these characters is the Trickster, a mythic native figure that toys with people and leads them toward bad decisions. On top of this—or perhaps because of this—is the substance abuse that plagues the reserve. Wind and his brothers binge drink and ‘huff’ petrol, desperate to escape their ugly world and return to a place of happiness. Intergenerational trauma and addiction afflict these characters and their families, snatching away their chance at a full life before they are even born.Cardinal directly involves the audience in the story, speaking straight out to the room, asking us to keep hold of props, and covering us with, as the program states, “incidental splatter effects of vegetables”. The characters view the audience as hallucinations, another bizarre and surreal encounter in an increasingly nightmarish world. It’s funny and clever, but also doesn’t allow the audience to have a safe, comfortable distance from the events taking place on the stage. Cardinal is trapping the viewer in the same circumstances as the characters, engendering a great deal of empathy for these flawed people in the process.
This is an intense, uncompromising show. The disturbing realities of life in the reserve, from the constant substance abuse, to the dangerous ‘blackout’ game the brothers play to amuse themselves, are very confronting; this is made even more so by the nonchalant way the characters go about them. The initial laughter becomes more and more bitter as the show goes on, and there are some extremely dark, somewhat graphic scenes, involving physical and sexual abuse that will push some audience members away. However, there is some hope at the end of the tunnel, with the potential for redemption offered from an unlikely source. Huff shines a stark light on the issues facing the Canadian Indigenous community, and it does so with deep empathy and daring confidence.
‘Huff’ is playing at the Subiaco Art Centre until March 24.