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BWW Review: HUFF at The Kennedy Center

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BWW Review: HUFF at The Kennedy Center
Cliff Cardinal in HUFF. Photo Credit: Jamie Williams

I do not feel qualified to assess the performance of HUFF at the Kennedy Center. Cree actor and playwright Cliff Cardinal's solo show is so graphic and abrasive, I would recommend that rather than read a critique to prepare yourself, work it out with your therapist.

I feel that I can responsibly and with integrity advise a theatre-goer if a tap routine is precise enough or chemistry between lead actors merits the purchase of a ticket. HUFF is a performance insofar as Cardinal is portraying characters on a stage, but this is not entertainment. It is a confrontation. For that, I am not equipped to pass judgment. The most I can do is try to describe to you the experience and wish you a sturdier stomach than I possess.

Under the direction of Karin Randoja, Cardinal tells the story of Wind, a teenager growing up on a reservation in Ontario. He portrays Wind's entire circle of influence including his brothers, father, father's girlfriends, grandmother, and a teacher. Wind's mother is dead of suicide, his father is an alcoholic, and his older brother has disabilities stemming from fetal alcohol syndrome. That is all just the prologue to their nightmare. The closest the brothers ever come to escaping unthinkable abuse is their own drug use and self-harm.

BWW Review: HUFF at The Kennedy Center
Cliff Cardinal in HUFF. Photo Credit: Jamie Williams

Wind's entire experience is horribly distressing, but perhaps the most tragic aspect is his relationship with a world beyond that reaches him, but never notices him reaching back. Essentially imprisoned on the reservation, Wind fantasizes about parts of 1980s Canadian society that infiltrate his community but don't incorporate it. He processes his experiences through imaginary pop culture like an NPR style radio program, sports reporters, and Sega Genesis. Alternatively, he grapples with traditions and beliefs that don't seem compatible with an exclusionary white culture. His grandmother performs a ritualistic grieving ceremony, his younger brother declares divine gifts from the Creator, and the Trickster stalks him mercilessly. Trickster is a fantasy representation of the hardship and misfortune that seems inescapable in Wind's life.

As a feat of bravery and vulnerability, HUFF ranks in an elite status of its own. Cardinal engages with the audience, tackles more than a dozen roles, maneuvers with a dearth of supplies, and literally endangers his own life before the audience. His only set, designed by Jackie Chau, is a blue chair and a few props. I unambiguously hope to never see that chair again as long as I live. It becomes the nucleus of horrors I wish to cast from my mind.

Cardinal has done the work to distinguish each role and smoothly transition second by second, but one-man shows are almost fatefully erratic. When it works, it is rather mesmerizing. When it doesn't, the audience risks being forcefully flung out of the story. He is a master manipulator using a menagerie of methods to deliver the story and does manage to execute comedic moments, but the term 'execute' is probably the only appropriate one. Every joke is designed to invoke swift shame for ever having found something in the story humorous at all. After two bait and switches, I could see the fall coming. I just didn't know how deep and dark the descent would be. I spent the rest of the show bracing and cringing against the laughter and felt isolated in fear. A joke was a sure signal something bad was coming.

BWW Review: HUFF at The Kennedy Center
Cliff Cardinal in HUFF. Photo Credit: Jamie Williams

The show has a recommended age of 16, but even at 30, I lacked fortitude. One woman walked out in the most graphic scene and I envied her. I wanted nothing more than to turn away from the distress unfolding, which is perhaps the only lasting message I can extract from Cardinal's performance. When we turn away from disregarded communities, atrocities occur unchecked.

HUFF is a shocking and arguably necessary depiction of a marginalized society. Cardinal boldly and unapologetically challenges everyone in the audience and makes sure we are always looking. I still insist I do not need graphic enactments of suicide or juvenile emotional, physical, and sexual abuse to viscerally reject those acts. If you feel you need to test yourself for any reason, HUFF is ready to challenge you.

Running Time: 70 minutes.

Performances of HUFF run through February 8 at The Kennedy Center. For tickets call (202) 467-4600, or visit: www.kennedy-center.org/.




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