Arts

promotional poster for Huff
Huff explores a difficult coming-of-age in an experimental new form. Image: Ben Shannon/CBC.

Generational trauma and substance addiction are just two of this difficult and necessary audio play’s components.

To be a theatre critic in 2020 is to stagnate – to mourn the loss of liveness; to feel the aching gap where theatre should be against the ruckus of the world; to search for ephemeral, theatrical highs in the dusty corners of cyberspace. 

For myself and my fellow Canadian critics, barred from in-person reviewing due to COVID-19, there has been a saving grace in the CBC PlayMe podcast series. PlayMe, hosted by Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley, takes contemporary Canadian plays and adapts them into “bingeable” audio dramas. The theatre scholar in me recoils a little at that tagline – do we really want theatre to be bingeable? – but PlayMe offers to Canadian audiences the chance to experience breathtaking new plays in experimental new forms, no matter where in the world they might be. 

Notably, PlayMe has been around since 2018 (so before the pandemic), but now, in the time of isolation and shuttered theatres, the podcast is a lifeline – a memory of how things once were, and with luck, how they might be again someday. CBC didn’t react to COVID-19 and put together a hasty podcast; rather, the podcast model is built in to the very fabric of these now-audio dramas, meaning the end result doesn’t feel like a clichéd COVID-19 band-aid, but as a legitimate mode of experimentation in the space between radio and theatre.

Enter: Huff, an electric solo show performed by award-winning performer Cliff Cardinal, recorded for PlayMe in 2019. The play hasn’t lost its relevance or verve in the time that’s passed since its recording; Huff still demands a certain emotional energy and lightheartedness, and is, without question, a “theatre” experience, even when disseminated through Spotify.

One cannot discuss Huff without a requisite trigger warning: the play is fundamentally about suicide. And generational trauma. And sexual abuse. And addiction. And domestic violence. If this seems like a laundry list of difficult topics, fear not; Huff is an exhilarating hour or so of storytelling and exploration, one with laughs to spare. Cardinal, as the narrator Wind, hits on the realities of low-income life on the rez, but shares the small nuggets of joy found there, too. We laugh with Wind as often as we grimace at the crinkle of Ziploc plastic. We’re his “imaginary friends,” but chillingly, here in Spotify-theatre-land, he’s our imaginary friend, too. We don’t mind whiling away this hour with Wind; he lures us in, right alongside the mischief-maker, Trickster.

It’s worth noting that Cardinal, when discussing and marketing Huff, stresses the universality of the play’s themes and triggers. It’s not a story about being Indigenous – it’s a story about being lost and community-less, which are feelings that transcend any one facet of a person’s identity. Cardinal says on his website: “HUFF is about kids who abuse solvents and are at high risk of suicide. It’s not the story of Indigenous people in Canada. If you change ten references in this story, it can be about any group of disenfranchised kids from any community.” And that’s true: the dangerous spark of adolescence is one felt everywhere, not just in Wind’s Canada.

Huff is the first play I’ve encountered over the course of COVID-19 that’s been able to grab my attention and not let go for even a second, forcing me to take notice of both its sheer calibre and its disturbing content; it’s haunted me since I first encountered it. Cardinal makes specific, easily understandable acting choices (particularly in the range of characters he’s able to show through only his voice), and his playwriting all but veers into full-on poetry at times. Cardinal’s voice is sanguine and alluring, reeling us into the depths and murk of Wind’s world, painting a portrait of a family marred by generational rifts. We extend our sympathies – he throws them right back at us. As an audience member, one feels almost voyeuristic, as if they’re listening to a confession, a testimony; there’s an ache that doesn’t cease for the totality of the performance.

Huff is a tough listen, I’m not saying it isn’t. But it’s also one of the more successful PlayMe podcasts, one whose transition to the digital sphere doesn’t feel at all clunky or unsubstantiated. The piece lends itself perfectly to a solo audience, and should be mandatory listening for all who can stretch themselves to handle its subject matter. Listeners also get the added bonus of a half-hour interview with Cliff Cardinal – a fine substitute for the in-person talkbacks of the before-COVID times.

Theatre criticism as we’ve come to accept and understand it won’t be back until 2021 at the earliest, and that’s a tough pill to swallow. But as long as theatre creators continue to produce, so too will there be theatre to cover – even if it’s theatre in a slightly unconventional casing. We critics need not stagnate; we just need to look to the beckoning world of alternative forms.

Huff is available for listening HERE.