Theatre Preview: Jumping off with Cliff

Cliff Cardinal tackles the issue of First Nations kids, ­suicide and solvent abuse


HUFF written and performed by Cliff Cardinal, directed by Karin Randoja. Presented by Native Earth Performing Arts at the Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas East). Previews from October 10, opens October 13 and runs to October 25. Pwyc $30. 416-531-1402, nativeearth.ca.


The first image in Cliff Cardinal’s Huff is an aboriginal boy named Wind with a plastic bag on his head, trying to commit suicide.

You know you’re not in for the usual sort of theatre.

The solo show, in which Cardinal plays more than a dozen characters, follows the lives of Wind and his brothers, who sniff gas to get high and play pass-out games. Winner of the Buddies Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation when it premiered at SummerWorks 2012, the piece, in a new staging directed by Karin Randoja, opens the Native Earth Performing Arts season.

“Kids are the most taboo subculture in Canada,” says the writer, “and I think these young First Nations kids who engage in solvent abuse and suicide attempts are absolutely terrifying. Some stories grab me and won’t let go this is one that as an artist I had to empathize with and in some fashion go through with an audience.”

Playing the brothers, their parents and others in their lives – including the smell of a skunk and a Sega Genesis console game – Cardinal also takes on iconic native character the Trickster.

Here that figure is the host for Shit Creek Radio, which plays regularly in the stoned Wind’s head.

“The Trickster is the unpredictable thing that pops up when people have good intentions but something makes them behave in strange ways. I picture him as a chorus that steps into the action not to move the plot along, but to suggest what’s happening inside them.

“In a world where kids do damage to their brains, it makes sense that their hallucinations blend with the stories they grew up with and the characters they came to love and fear from an early age.”

Despite the bleak content, Cardinal has ladled a good amount of comedy into the narrative.

“It serves as an anesthetic for the work, like little happy pills we swallow as we go into these really, really dark places. Laughter makes the audience open up, and when that happens, I’ve got them.”

His other projects include the new work romanceship, a play for elementary schools called Sidewalk Chalk and the release of a record for his band, Cliff Cardinal and the Skylarks. He’s also writer-in-residence at VideoCabaret. Another of his plays, Stitch, coincidentally closed the Native Earth season last year.

Huff is Cardinal’s only culturally specific work, and he’s performed it some 70 times.

Those early performances, he admits, were traumatic. Now, though the material is still intimidating, he also describes the experience as “quite a rush.”

“I’m still fine-tuning the nuances, and audiences are mostly excited about reacting to the full journey, the darkness and the humour.

“Theatre is a cool thing. We can see those things we hate and laugh at them. The more we play with those ideas, the more we make fun of them, the more we find – at least for a moment – that we don’t have to be afraid of them.”

jonkap@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto.com

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