Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 was the opening night of Huff, A Native Earth Performing Arts Production presented by The Firehall Arts Centre in collaboration with PuSH International Performing Arts Festival. Huff is written and performed by Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randjola.
Huff opens in near total darkness, as the "no" of a neon vacancy sign flickers on. Cardinal, the playwright and sole star of the show, lies motionless at centre stage, with a Ziploc bag duct taped over his head and his hands bound behind his back. He is on minute five of the six minutes it will take for him to reach total asphyxiation. This is the moment in Wind, the protagonist's, life that we will spend the remaining 70 minutes of the play seeking to understand.
The set of Huff is simple—a chair, a table, and some panels of translucent fabric hanging from the ceiling—but Cardinal's dynamic energy transports us through countless locations. Although he never leaves the stage, there is a clear progression of scenes that flow seamlessly into each other.
Cardinal boldly breaks the fourth wall, referring to us as his "imaginary friends" on multiple occasions. At one point, an audience member is asked to make a decision so central to the play that I wonder whether Cardinal has prepared multiple endings.
Cardinal's performance is astounding. He embodies over a dozen characters, each with discrete mannerisms and voices that prevent any audience confusion. As Wind's older brother, Charles, he becomes a dark figure, hood pulled down over his eyes. As Wind's protective “kokum,” or grandmother, he walks with a hunch. Cardinal's exhaustion becomes evident as the show nears its end, but his fatigue only raises the tension leading up to the play's tragic climax.
Huff crosses a line that some audience members may find disturbing; however, the play's program does offer a trigger warning, along with the phone numbers of support centres in case of any lingering distress. The show touches on themes that are difficult to watch, and does so without hesitation or fear.
Apart from a few opening night hiccups, Tuesday’s performance was flawless. Cardinal received a standing ovation that persisted long after he left the stage. Haunting and authentic, Huff is a truly outstanding achievement.
Huff plays at The Firehall Arts Centre until Saturday, February 6, 2016. For tickets and showtimes, visit firehallartscentre.ca.