I saw a workshop of Cliff Cardinal's story of a dysfunctional and profoundly damaged family on the Rez back last fall. I was excited by the funny writing, the realistic and well-voiced characters, the great story-telling and by Cardinal as a performer.
HUFF arrived at SUMMERWORKS off good press from Winnipeg where it was part of the Fringe.
I wanted to see how Cardinal had managed to distill all that story and all of those characters (around 20, including a skunk and a dog) into a one-person show. With a tight story driven by a central character, excellent direction, a wonderful, atmospheric set and an astonishingly grounded and assured performance: that's how. HUFF is bleak and blackly droll, sharply observed and excruciating to watch.
Huff is a euphemism for sniffing gasoline and other solvents. It causes hallucinations which the show brings vividly to life. It also cause irreversible brain damage.
Cardinal the writer unrolls the story with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy. Substance abuse and all of the ills that attend it, is rampant on Shit Creek reserve. You can't grow up in Manitoba and not know a place like Shit Creek, you can't live in Winnipeg and not see the consequences of growing up the way Huff is growing up on Shit Creek.
Cardinal shows the legacy of inter-generational substance abuse and the awful despair and destruction that attends it as the Trickster's reign of folly. In less skilled hands, this would be another exercise in hand-wringing. Cardinal simply shows the audience what is and lets his characters have their own voices, their own power, their own tragedies and sorrows, their own dreams, their own hope.
There are places where things could use a little space between character shifts, a slight slackening of the pace: just a little more room to breathe. Cardinal's ease and confidence on a stage and his committed presence in the moment more than made up for any minor technical issues.
"The Creator gives everyone a gift". Mr Cardinal has clearly been given a few gifts. He's still quite young. If this is any indication of what he's capable of at this tender age, I can't wait to see what he does next.
It was a fine night of theatre. I hope it gets a remount and a tour across the country.