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Cliff Cardinal brings his stand-up set about reconciliation, The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It, to Toronto's CAA Theatre.Dahlia Katz/Mirvish

  • Title: The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It
  • Written and performed by: Cliff Cardinal
  • Creative co-conspirator: Chris Abraham
  • Company: David Mirvish and Crow’s Theatre
  • Venue: CAA Theatre
  • City: Toronto, Ont.
  • Year: To April 2, 2023

Critic’s Pick

The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It, Cliff Cardinal’s sensational solo show now back on stage in Toronto at the CAA Theatre, is a liberating night at the theatre.

It’s a stand-up set about reconciliation that is so brutally funny, and so brutally honest, that it leaves you yearning to go out into the night and speak the truth yourself. To drop your platitudes and your politics and use language to say what you really mean.

I wouldn’t advise most folks to follow that urge, of course. Better to leave that to paid professionals like Cardinal, an Indigenous mischief-maker who tells it like (he thinks) it is in this show.

The thirtysomething theatrical storyteller starts with what he thinks about the now ubiquitous practice of land acknowledgments – and his feelings might unite both those of a conservative (or lapsed liberal) inclination and Indigenous people fed up with performative gestures of solidarity from others.

Striding back and forth in front of a closed red curtain, Cardinal lambastes “left-wing academic sloganeering” and a wider pseudo-progressive cultural emphasis on language over action.

Land acknowledgments are being used to make non-Indigenous people feel good about themselves, he suggests. When an individual approaches him for feedback on a paean to the original caretakers of this land, Cardinal hears: “Tell me I’m one of the good ones.”

Cardinal – or at least the persona he’s playing on stage here – doesn’t much like preshow land acknowledgments when Indigenous people are involved either, mind you. His description of one that went longer than the ensuing show itself is a politically incorrect delight. As much of the show is.

But if you think you’ve got the show pegged as a kind of Indigenous cousin of comedian Chris Rock’s recent special Selective Outrage, there are elements to come that will make you think more of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette.

This is to say, Cardinal’s show is hard to put in a box (and that it is Netflix-worthy). He follows up many a statement with an impish smile that is sometimes a half-apology, and sometimes seems to say “if you thought that was shocking, wait until you hear what comes out of my mouth next.”

When this monologue was first performed in Toronto in 2021 at Crow’s Theatre – whose artistic director Chris Abraham is credited as “co-conspirator” rather than director – it was presented under the title As You Like It.

Audiences not in the know were surprised to discover that the land acknowledgment that Cardinal came out to deliver, ostensibly before that William Shakespeare comedy was to start, turned out to be the show itself.

In its current incarnation, however, Cardinal’s performance is advertised as what it actually is. He explains in this new revised version that the ruse was dropped due to a request from Mirvish Productions, which has programmed the show as part of its off-Mirvish season.

“They didn’t think you could handle it,” he tells the audience, one of several digs at his presenters.

Biting the hand currently feeding him is one of the strategies Cardinal uses to gain the audience’s trust – a trust which he then proceeds to entertainingly abuse, time and time again.

Cardinal’s performance style, which is at times jumpy, and others totally controlled, is unnerving in that it never settles into a relaxing rhythm; in both content and form, he pulls the rug out from under you at every possible opportunity.

If you are concerned (or excited) that his jabs about the “woke,” “virtue signalling” and the term “ally” – a word that makes him shiver in disgust – are taking the show in one particular direction, know Cardinal’s show will not please anyone on a narrow algorithm and is sure to offend everyone at least once.

At a certain moment, however, the monologist does get serious – drops the deke-outs, the hairpin turns in opinion, the jokes. Most daringly, Cardinal lets himself get angry and show his anger – as he talks about things he’d actually like to be acknowledged in this country in a section focused on the unmarked graves being investigated at former residential schools.

The way Cardinal talks about the Catholic Church, in particular, will be seen as inflammatory; it reminds you, retroactively, that “you can’t say anything these days” is actually one of the things you hear most these days. What you don’t hear much of these days is raw honesty followed by vulnerability and a true attempt at connection as you’ll find here.

I left wondering: How did Canadians end up pursuing euphemism and reconciliation?