Two Shows to Take Your Breath Away
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Two Shows to Take Your Breath Away

Cliff Cardinal's Huff is a heartbreaker, while Lisa Dwan's Beckett Trilogy gives great mouth.

Cliff Cardinal performs Huff, his one-man show about troubled First Nations youth, at Native Earth's Aki Studio  Photo by akipari

Cliff Cardinal performs Huff, his one-man show about troubled First Nations youth, at Native Earth’s Aki Studio. Photo by akipari.

Aki Studio (Daniels Spectrum) (585 Dundas Street East)
Runs to October 25
4 Stars

Beckett Trilogy
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs to November 1
$24 – $69
4 Stars

Cliff Cardinal knows how to grab your attention. His first play, Stitch, ended with a porn star’s gruesome self-mutilation. His second, Huff, opens with a young man with his head inside a sealed plastic bag, in the process of committing suicide. His hands are tied with duct tape and the bag really does look airtight; for a minute or two you wonder if, theatre etiquette be damned, you should have left your cellphone on so you could call 911.

Not to worry: the play is called Huff, not Snuff, and you won’t be witnessing self-slaughter live onstage. What you will end up seeing, however, is almost as harrowing. We’ve read about the horribly routine tragedies on some of Canada’s First Nations reserves, but it’s one thing to read them, another to see them performed—and often in graphic detail. Huff, opening the 33rd season of the Native Earth Performing Arts, is an unflinchingly explicit depiction of the rez at its worst: a place where everyone from the elders to the children are trapped in a vicious cycle of addiction, abuse and despair.

Huff, like Stitch, is a solo work, performed here by Cardinal. The young man in the plastic bag is the play’s narrator, Wind, the middle child of three brothers being raised by their abusive, hard-drinking dad after their mother, an alcoholic, committed suicide. The hulking eldest brother, suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, is a sadist and sex addict. Wind and his sweet little brother kill time by huffing gas or aerosol spray and playing games of “pass out”—this when they’re not pulling dangerous pranks and getting into trouble.

To call this play heartbreaking would be an understatement. There’s a particularly wrenching scene where the father’s girlfriend, left to reluctantly babysit the boys, sends the youngest one to bed with a can of Lysol. But the tone of the production isn’t unrelentingly dark. Cardinal, in the tradition of elders like the great Tomson Highway, uses splashes of comedy to make the pain bearable. The boys have an amusing run-in with a snarky skunk, who totes his stink like a shotgun, and a scene in a school classroom is acted out with brown beer bottles standing in for the students (and a white beer can, natch, for the lone white kid).

Cardinal also draws on native tradition by introducing the familiar figure of the trickster, that shape shifter who here takes on the form of a jaded disc jockey—the voice of “Shit Creek Radio”—and spikes the play’s narrative with his caustic commentary.

Boyish, rocking a cowlick, Cardinal conveys both mischief and sadness in his central role as the suicidal Wind. The son of Tantoo Cardinal, he has acting in his blood, and it shows in his shape shifting on stage: he transforms nimbly into the play’s many secondary characters, which are not just human and animal but, in the case of their dad’s cheeky Sega Genesis console, digital too. He gives a funny-scary depiction of another type of transformation, as he woozily demonstrates the brain-numbing high induced by gas huffing.

As a playwright, Cardinal once again displays the wit and imagination he revealed in Stitch—not to mention a taste for sordid details—but Huff feels closer to home. Here, he’s dealing not just with an individual’s tragedy, but with an ongoing societal one, taking place in our own backyard. Cardinal may not offer any solutions (that’s not the responsibility of an artist), but he paints a powerful picture of the problem.

Huff has been here before. It was first staged at the 2012 SummerWorks Festival, where it picked up the Buddies in Bad Times Vanguard Award for Risk and Innovation. This new production—once again sharply directed by Karin Randoja—is playing Toronto as the first stop on nine-city national tour. That’s good news: this is an important work that demands to be seen.

Lisa Dwan performs Not I, part of her touring Beckett Trilogy at Canadian Stage  Photo by Justin Downing/Sky Arts

Lisa Dwan performs Not I, part of her touring Beckett Trilogy at Canadian Stage. Photo by Justin Downing/Sky Arts.

Where Huff is jarringly explicit, Beckett Trilogy is entrancingly elusive. This trio of late monologues by Samuel Beckett, sublimely performed by Irish actress Lisa Dwan at Canadian Stage, will drive you crazy if you try to understand them. Instead, sit back, open your eyes and ears (especially your ears), and take them in as enigmatic but exquisite word-music. Beckett didn’t write them as intellectual exercises, but to stir up moods and feelings, using such musical techniques as rhythm, repetition, counterpoint, and tempo.

The 55-minute performance opens with an allegro piece, the famous Not I, a lightning-fast rant spilling forth from Dwan’s mouth as it floats, seemingly disembodied, eight feet above the pitch-black stage. It’s followed by the slower and longer Footfalls, a duet in which Dwan gives voice to both a dying mother and her attendant daughter while pacing deliberately back and forth across a long rectangle of light suggesting a corridor. The final solo, Rockaby, as its title suggests, is like a hypnotic, haunting lullaby, spoken by Dwan as a lonely woman steadily rocking in a rocking chair.

Beckett didn’t originally write these works to go together, but their similarities—among other things, all three concern elderly women looking back on their lives—make for a fascinating triptych. Dwan and director Walter Asmus—both Beckett experts—first presented them as a trilogy at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2014 and Dwan has since been touring the show internationally to much acclaim.

Beckett was notoriously precise about how he wanted his works staged and performed (just as he was steadfastly vague about their meaning), and this production is scrupulously faithful to his vision. The three monologues are performed without intermission in a blacked-out auditorium (even the exit signs in the Berkeley Street Theatre are turned off), where the only illumination comes from the few shafts of light onstage. Dwan, in a long white-lace dress (Footfalls) or a black, glittering one (Rockabye), looks like a ghost from another century. (In James Farncombe’s lighting, her pale skin gleams ethereally during the eerie Rockabye.) The strangest and boldest piece, of course, is Not I, where we see nothing but her red mouth lit by a solitary spotlight.

To unpack the meaning just of that monologue, let alone all three, requires more space than we have here. (Critic Benedict Nightingale’s 1973 review in The New Statesman of the original London production of Not I ran to 1,750 words.) But it’s tempting to see Not I as one of Beckett’s great contributions to feminist dramatic literature, in which a 70-year-old woman, silent most of her life, finally lets loose with a frenzied, fragmented flood of memories—repeatedly and poignantly punctuated with a vehement denial of self. And Beckett all but removes the possibility of objectification, erasing her body and face, and leaving only her mouth.

But these are the sort of interpretations to be discussed over drinks after the show. For the performance itself, once again, just sit back and listen to a modernist master’s minimalist music. Beckett Trilogy isn’t a play, it’s a concert.