Wind is attempting to commit suicide with a plastic bag over his head. It’s a shock laced with black humour; he’s tried this before, he tells us wryly. He even details the process at which the a person begins to suffocate – “I would know,” he says.
This is Huff, a solo show by Cliff Cardinal and one of the oldest professional Indigenous theatre companies in Canada, Native Earth Performing Arts. It’s part of an overarching Canadian program within the Sydney Festival repertoire and it’s an unrelenting and topical piece that transports you into a vividly singular and serious but also darkly funny tale of a family’s life on a First Nation Reserve.
The audience saves Cliff this time. He grabs a surprised person from the front row to take the bag off his head, asking him to promise to never give it back to him. It is this interaction with the audience, the fourth wall permanently broken, that gives a necessary spark to this production – it is never afraid to shock, transport or to even splash the audience with a certain food substance (avoid the front row if you are wearing white).
From the first scene, Cardinal’s prime message to us is to “breathe”. With that, he takes his audience (who he calls his “imaginary friends”) back in time to the circumstances which led his character to that first suicide attempt.
For seventy minutes, Cardinal stalks the stage as a multitude of characters. Along with Wind, he takes on his brothers, the young Huff, slight-pervert brother Charles, as well s as his father and father’s girlfriend Donna. It’s a miraculous show of energy as Cardinal traces the scars of his mother’s suicide through his family line and the way it has shaped his own life. We only become disengaged with the story when the transitions between his many personas becomes jumbled and confusing, and the establishment and clarity of singular characters is lost between the shifts of dreamlike sequences and reality.
An Indigenous production, Huff intertwines spiritual figures such as Trickster – a humorous figure that shows the consequences of wrongdoing – into the narrative. But the First Nation people and Wind’s family’s roots are often assumed rather than spoken; a mention of the high statistical rates of suicides among the First Nations living on Reserves is only briefly present, and could perhaps have benefited more by providing more context about the systemic problems present in that community.
Nevertheless, there is a lot to appreciate in Huff, especially in its audacious mode of storytelling. If anything, it reminds us of the need to take in life step-by-step and to take the time to breathe.