“Huff” by Cliff Cardinal at Edmonton’s Rubaboo Festival

What a theatre experience!

If you missed Cliff Cardinal’s painful, disturbing, challenging, difficult, funny tour de force performance in his self-written Huff during it’s Edmonton run at Rubaboo, you might want to catch up with Cardinal in Vancouver next week, or Toronto, Quebec City, Montreal, Manitowaning, Kelowna or Victoria in the coming weeks and months. As brutal as Cardinal’s exploration of substance abuse and inter- and intra-generational violence is, Huff is a piece of theatre worth seeking out.

I might have missed Huff if, when I bumped into her at the opening of Tomas Illes’ A Delicate Side of Edmonton, artist Dawn Marie Marchand had not mentioned the play to me. Her reminder to me a few days ago got me planning ahead to make sure I didn’t miss the play. I made sure to mention it to #yegtheatre blogger extraordinaire Jenna Marynowski and was pleased when she told me she’d already planned to be at the same matinee performance I would be going to.

Something over fifty people made a good audience in the Milner Library’s cozy theatre. The set was a beautifully economical infinite black space with very effective use of lighting, still projection and simple hanging cloth banners, three of which are tied to the lives of the three brothers, the main characters of Huff. A wooden chair and crate, a beer bottle, a rag, a bowl, a brown paper huffing sack, and a large jar of stewed tomatoes completed the set and props.

And then Cardinal goes to work. If I count correctly, in seventy fast paced minutes, Cardinal plays all three brothers, their father, their mother, their father’s new partner, their kookum, their dog (who speaks), and an aggressive and accidentally suicidal skunk. I believe up to six of these characters, all portrayed by Cardinal, are on stage at any one time, all interacting with each other, all absolutely clearly discriminated in Cardinal’s wholly remarkable performance. As well, Cardinal ingeniously incorporated — no — he forced audience participation.

The standing ovation for Cliff Cardinal, playwright and actor, was absolutely well deserved.

I will give little more away than to say Huff is an extremely challenging, difficult, and timely piece of theatre.  At one point one of the brothers says (of his brothers? of his family? of the audience as well?) “we are products of the Res (Rez?) schools!”

Repeatedly the youngest brother speaks of his gift from the Creator, the ability to breath gently and put a feeling of joy into the heart of others. Each time he demonstrates this gift, his arms are extended, as though crucified.

Here, I think is the quintessence of Huff: the three brothers, the four (and so many more) in La Loche, the now largely forgotten lost of Natuashish, and the countless “products of the res schools” . . . they all had that gift from the Creator, to breathe — to huff joy into our hearts or anyone’s. But everyone of the dead died for our sins and the sins of our fathers to the seventh generation and to the Eighth Fire.  And all the survivors have died a little or a lot.

Huff is a painful, painful piece of theatre, a wonderful drama, and Cardinal’s is a stunning, human and humane performance. If Huff comes your way, see it.