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theatre review

Cliff Cardinal in his searing one-man play Huff, at Toronto's Daniels Spectrum.

To breathe or not to breathe. All life long, that has been the question for Wind, the tortured, but tough antihero at the centre of Cree playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal's unflinching solo show, Huff.

We first meet Wind choosing not to breathe – a plastic freezer bag placed over his head, duct tape sealing it tight around his neck. As Wind introduces himself to the audience, this bag inflates around his youthful face, making him look almost comical – like a boy stuck in a balloon. But when he inhales to deliver his next line, then his next, the air in the bag disappears into his lungs and we are repeatedly faced with the appalling image of a shrink-wrapped human.

Wind is breathing and rebreathing the same breath until it chokes him. (So, frighteningly, is the actor, the author, playing him.) "This is a suicide attempt," he tells us. Then, a first taste of the dark sense of humour that will lighten the mood – barely – for the next 70 minutes: "I say attempt, but it's looking pretty good!"

The bag does comes off and the show does continue – as Wind takes us back to his youth on a reserve "a long, long time ago – in the eighties." (This, typical of Cardinal's writing, is a line that seems like a throwaway joke, but has deeper resonance – in this case, a dig at all those who try to convince us that the past is far in the past, or past at all.)

In a fantasy-infused flashback, we find Wind and his younger brother, Huff, as children siphoning gas from a teacher's car at the beginning of a long day and night that will forever change them. Gasoline is only one of many solvents that the boys choose to breathe instead of air in order to find temporary escape from the stifling life they inhabit.

Wind and Huff's mother is dead, of suicide. Their father is a mean alcoholic, a cause rather than effect of that suicide. And an older brother, Charles, is a sadist and a sex pervert who probably has fetal alcohol syndrome – a victim of abuse who is completing his transformation into an abuser himself.

That cycle of abuse – a stale breath being inhaled and exhaled until it chokes – is a dominant theme of Cardinal's play. You may feel for Wind's stepmother when she is violated by her oldest stepson, but then, the next moment, she's passing out a can of Lysol to her youngest stepson in order to bribe him to go to bed. There is little place for complete sympathy with any of the characters, and astonishingly little room for hope.

What happens to Wind and Huff in particular would be almost too horrific if it weren't for the sardonic, distancing tone of Cardinal's writing and his performance of it. Cardinal, the son of legendary Métis actor Tantoo Cardinal, plays all the parts – but, aside from Wind, keeps them at arm's length, representing them more than fully inhabiting them.

"Gas tastes like metal, but also like being scared – like someone screaming in your face," Wind tells us of the pleasure of solvent abuse. Breathing in chemical fumes, he tells us, also leads to brief hallucinations, momentary euphoria followed by nauseous awakenings.

This is an effect that Cardinal mimics very effectively in the structure of his play. Just when Wind's story seems excessively bleak, one of the characters cuts off the oxygen and sends us into surreal dreamscapes inspired by video games and television shows. This magical realism bleeds into the larger narrative in the form of characters such as a sentient Sega Genesis or a very funny talking skunk, who holds his tail like a loaded weapon.

At the same time, Cardinal holds his own tale like a loaded weapon – the actor's performance of his own text, at times, showing little regard for his own well-being and, at other times, showing little regard for the audience. (If you're wearing white, you might not want to sit in the front row.)

Set designer Jackie Chau provides a hotel-room jungle gym full of beer bottles for Cardinal to play in – and director Karin Randoja mainly lets him loose in it. If anything, Huff could use a little less slackness – so characters and conceits are more consistently clear.

While I lost the plot a couple of times, I always found it again quick enough. Many playwrights revel in exploring the dark corners of dysfunctional families. What most disturbs about Huff is how banal this grotesque dysfunction seems to the characters – there are no shocking reveals here, to them at least.

But then none of this should be shocking to an audience, either: We know that the suicide rates among youth on reserves is five times greater than in the rest of Canada. And we know that breathing solvents or simply stopping breathing can seems like an easier choice to someone in Wind's situation than simply breathing.

Faced with Cardinal writhing in a plastic bag, in this searing play of his, perhaps we can go beyond simply knowing.

Huff continues to Oct. 25 at the Aki Studio in the Daniels Spectrum ( This winter, Huff goes on a cross-Canada tour hitting up Calgary, Edmonton in January, Vancouver, Quebec City and Montreal in February; and Kelowna and Victoria in March.

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