Stage Door Review


Wednesday, February 7, 2024


by Cliff Cardinal, directed by Karin Randoja

Native Earth Performing Arts, Daniels Spectrum, Toronto

October 13-25, 2015;

Young Centre, Toronto

October 17-28, 2017;

Grand Theatre, London, ON

February 7-17, 2024;

Streetcar Crowsnest, Toronto

April 23-28, 2024

“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear”

When the lights go up in the theatre, Cree actor Cliff Cardinal has a plastic bag duct-taped over his head and his wrists duct-taped behind him. He says he’s already gone over the five minutes needed to asphyxiate himself but a woman’s voice that he thinks must be an hallucination keeps telling him “Breathe”. Finally, he rushes up to someone in the front row of the audience, whom he believes must also be an hallucination, and asks the person to undo the bag and free his wrists.

It’s a disturbing way to begin a play but Cardinal is treating a disturbing subject – the alarmingly high rate of suicides among First Nations youth. According to Health Canada, “The suicide rate for First Nations males is 126 per 100,000 compared to 24 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal males”. Yet, the great virtue of Cardinal’s new solo play is that it is not an “issues play”. It focusses on telling a specific story filled with a mixture of upsetting detail and abundant humour, and trusts the audience to understand its meaning. Once Cardinal has been freed from the plastic bag, he leads us into a world alien to most of his audience where we have to discover its laws and deduce how they came to be.

Cardinal explains how ingrained the notion of the Trickster is in First Nations culture. Trickster is a shape-shifting spirit always waiting for the time he can visit misfortune upon people. But as Cardinal notes, “There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear” and fear underlies nearly every aspect of the world Cardinal conjures up.

Cardinal playing a boy named Wind decides to tell us the story in the form of an ancient tale to explain how he came to be in the situation we first witnessed. He hear of a warrior Michael who woos a beautiful maiden Tracey though her mother Kokhum (meaning “grandmother’) thinks he is not good enough for her. Indeed, Michael beats Tracey which drives her to drink. Her first child, Charles, is born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. She overcomes her addiction and has two more children, Wind and Huff, but Michael’s infidelities push her over the edge and she commits suicide by hanging.

The three boys are inattentively raised by Michael and his new girlfriend Donna, but Kokhum remains their main source of stability and protection. To cope with their uncaring parents and their physically and sexually abusive brother Charles, Wind and Huff escape to fantasy worlds they create for themselves in an abandoned motel they know about or in the family basement. To get high they sniff gasoline or play the “pass-out game” where they choke each other in turn just until the other passes out. Their father’s girlfriend is no help because to get the two to go to bed when she wants, she gives them a coveted can of Lysol.

The actions that take place would be horrendous except that Cardinal shows them to us from Wind’s point of view where getting high isn’t dangerous but fun and where beatings from their father or sexual abuse from their brother are facts of family life since they have no other family to compare theirs to. As a sign or what their world is like, Wind chides Huff by saying, “Why can’t you be normal like other kids and swear or cut yourself?” The question is both funny and sad at once.

Cardinal also narrates the lives of Wind and Huff in the style of magic realism. Among the more than 20 voices Cardinal uses are those of a skunk, a dog and even a personified Smell. Wind imagines his life as it would be played out in other media such as video games, television game shows or sports and Cardinal does the voices that would accompany each medium. Wind’s mind is also symbolically always tuned to Radio Shit Creek (motto: “For when you’re up Shit Creek without a paddle”) where get hears the latest news and weather.

Cardinal is amazingly talented, engaging and very physical performer who is able to keep his 20 or more characters completely distinct in voice and gesture. His technique of constantly breaking the fourth wall has two intents. One, it makes the usual point of not letting us forget that we are watching a stage performance. Two, and more significantly, it directly implicates us in the action.

When Cardinal has his plastic bag and duct-tape removed at the top of the show, he tells the person who helps him not to give it back to him no matter how much he asks for it. That person, and by extension all of us, are thus held responsible for helping Cardinal or his alter ego Wind from sliding back into suicide. At one point Wind asks us directly what he should do. We say nothing partially because we can’t tell if the question is rhetorical, partially because we don’t have an answer. The second case places us in the same position as those who read or hear about First Nations youth in trouble and do nothing.

Huff provides a powerful insight into a way of living most of us know nothing about. Cardinal uses humour to make Wind’s unhappy life more entertaining and to reflect the innocent, generally hopeful outlook Wind struggles to maintain in a world where his escapes are revealed as further traps. What can we do to eliminate the fear First Nations youth feel that attracts Trickster? Cardinal is an artist to watch and Huff is a play to see now before he takes it on a cross-Canada tour.

*This review is of a performance in 2015.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: (from top) Cliff Cardinal as Kokhum; Cliff Cardinal as Huff. ©2015 akipari.

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