My usual practice when reviewing theatre or film is to read as little as possible about the work beforehand, and I take little heed of ‘content warnings’ – after all, art is supposed to disturb the comfortable, and comfort the disturbed. Since my choice of Fringe performances came exclusively from Amnesty International’s Freedom of Expression Award long-list, I knew that most would be of good quality, but also, potentially tough material. Huff was no exception.
From the moment the lights went up, the audience were in for a rough ride as the sole performer staggered around with a plastic bag over his head, secured around the neck with duct tape, his hands tied behind his back. He explained that, as suicide attempts go, this one was looking good; then he went on to describe the details of timing and science.
Thankfully (for it was looking like a pretty short play) a change of mind had him asking a man in the front row for help. After some tense seconds, the man removed the plastic bag and then freed the actor’s hands. The man was told to keep the bag and, no matter how much the actor pleaded, to not give it back. For the remainder of the play we waited for this to happen.
Rather than breathing in his own breath that would kill him, the actor tells us the breath he’s breathing is a story. We launch into a tale told at breath-taking speed, with multiple characters, all played with deft skill by actor and writer, Cliff Cardinal. Sometimes the pace leaves you gasping for air, and the voices we hear are blurred and confusing – but that is possibly the point. This is a distressing look at a subject of which many in the audience may be ignorant.
The ‘huff’ of the title refers to ‘huffing’ on gasoline fumes, one of the many vices employed by the kids Cardinal portrays, to help them get through the horrific existence where alcoholism, suicide, solvent, sexual, and self-abuse are prevalent among those who are “products of the Reserve schooling system” – with a dose of arson thrown in for good measure.
The only blame is apportioned to ‘The Trickster’ although who this may be is never explained. In Native American lore, the Coyote is known as the trickster, but this drama is taken from the lives and experiences of Canadian indigenous people (their ‘trickster’ is a malevolent spirit) which kind of makes it more shocking.
If we had comfortable ideas about Canada, the point of this piece to disturb them, and open our eyes. With his repeated interaction with the audience, Cardinal makes it clear that we’re all in on this, and a part of it. When he, as expected, begs the man in the front row to return the plastic bag so he can finally self-asphyxiate, the audience-member plays his part perfectly, refusing to budge.
But no matter: our character has a spare one in his pocket, and we are back where we started. This play is a punch in the guts, especially for those (me included) who think all America’s crap is what issues forth from the mouth of Donald Trump. It seems the United States’ northern neighbour isn’t so perfect after all.