Trigger Warning: rape, substance abuse and suicide.
Sitting, watching, waiting until the lights go dim. As the audience settled in no one could predict what the next 75 minutes would entail.
The lights come up, illuminating Cliff Cardinal suffocating in a plastic bag, duct-taped to his neck. His hands are bound behind his back; covered in sweat, he appeared to be taking his last breaths. In a panic, he rushed to the front row of the audience begging someone to free him from suffocating. Terrified, I unwrapped the duct tape that was strangling him. He then asked me to guard the bag for him, and as he stared into my eyes he uttered, “I don’t trust you” and handed the bag off to the woman to my right. Being criticized for my untrustworthiness by an actor during a performance? Now that was a first. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of the play: unpredictable, scary and very raw.
Huff is a story focused around impoverished Indigenous trauma. Cardinal plays every character in the play, switching between personas in a creepy and effortless way. This was an asset to the show because only Cardinal had the spotlight and the audience could hone in on his mannerisms and idiosyncrasies as each character. Cardinal could not have pulled the different characters off any better; his different voices, walks and personalities made the audience believe the personas were truly different people. Interestingly, there were no costume changes, leaving the transitions from characters entirely up to Cardinal’s acting ability.
The storyline follows Wind, his brothers, his abusive dad and his step-mother. Wind is stalked by the elusive Trickster, who delivers bad fortune to its victims when they are most vulnerable. Through his mother’s suicide and the abuse he endures at the hands of his brother and father, Wind is tormented by the Trickster. Trickster is to blame for the motel fire caused by a burning porn magazine, for the boy’s obsession with huffing gasoline and their general state of melancholy. The Trickster’s grasp on the boy grows tighter and tighter until the youngest brother decides this world is not worth living in.
Humour is woven throughout the play, which makes Cardinal’s performance that much more twisted than if it was just a surface-level, dark play. His depiction of a skunk had the audience cracking up and brought a sense of silliness to the production that was unexpected and unsettling. Cardinal plays the skunk like an army general, demanding answers and interrogating the brothers. His hilarious imitation of a skunk-turned-person hit all the right chords; he was witty, animated and nailed the punch lines home.
However, the humour does not last. There is a sharp and jarring turn into a plotline that made my stomach churn. The instance that signifies Huff’s fall into a downward spiral is the horrific rape he endures at the hand of his eldest brother; the depiction of incest and rape is sickening. Cardinal is unbelievably graphic in his movements and dialogue. It is unsettling how slowly he acts this scene out, how the movements become more forceful as the dialogue becomes harsher. The climax is a rebirth with Cardinal forcing himself through the legs of a chair as if coming out of a womb, which is a truly twisted way to depict rape between brothers. This encounter leaves Huff broken and lost.
Cardinal’s portrayal of the brother’s step-mom, Donna, was also upsetting. It gave insight into the realities of living with an alcoholic partner and the struggles of being an Indigenous woman. Donna was subjected to the cruel wrath of her male counterparts, from being sexually harassed to generally disrespected by the four men in her life. Watching a man act as a woman was intriguing to watch. Cardinal changed his voice, mannerisms and strut seamlessly to embody a young, broken and confused woman.
Suicide is acted out twice in the play, each one is twisted in its own way. The first is the initial suffocation which put the audience into complete shock, watching the bag move with his breath and the sweat dripping down his forehead was chilling. His struggle to pull the bag off his head without the use of his arms because they are tied behind his back was thoroughly upsetting to watch. The second suicide was by hanging as Cardinal wraps around a belt around his neck and pulls. The simplicity of this suicide was unsettling in every respect; he slowly slumped to the ground, there was no kicking and screaming or attempt to breathe again.
The graphic nature of the suicide scenes left the audience wishing they could help. Nothing but hurt and empathy can describe the feelings that filled the theatre. I found myself inching towards the edge of my seat hoping I could help this broken soul heal, wishing I could do anything and everything to help this suffering man that lay in a heap only feet away from me. And this is where the importance of Huff lays.
Cardinal’s performance will chew you up and spit you out. It is revolting and funny and, ultimately, a sickening story. Huff is why theatre is important, why art and expression are valuable to society. Anyone can tell you about Indigenous trauma, but to see it in action is truly moving. Rape is one thing to consistently light up headlines, but to watch an older brother rape his younger bother is unbelievably hard to watch. Suicide has been in our vocabulary usually since elementary school, but witnessing Cardinal try to kill himself by suffocation and then by hanging were images the audience will never forget.
This performance was one that the audience could not help but connect to, the amount of trauma explored was bound to hit a chord with everyone watching. Huff makes trauma come to life and leaves nothing up to the imagination. Most importantly, the performance made the audience feel something.
As a viewer, the performance was not something I could separate from my life, it was not something autonomous up on the stage for me to sit back and enjoy. Huff challenged viewers to watch the violence that comes along with substance abuse, listen to the self-deprecating thoughts leading up to suicide and watch an incestual rape unfold. As disturbing as this performance was, it did something most plays struggle or fail to do; make the audience feel something deep in their souls, question their perceptions of reality and leave them shaken to their core.