Not too good to be true: Cliff Cardinal talks his “admirably twisted” new play

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Cliff Cardinal

“It’s theatre the way I love theatre. It’s funny, sad, hopeful.”

Does this gamut of emotions sound too wide to be true of one play? Not according to Dora-Award winning playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal. His new play Too Good to Be True is a dark comedy that follows a mother on the run with her two teenage children. Cardinal is quickly building a reputation for exploring urgent topics, and has earned critical praise for his previous two plays: Stitch (2015) about an actor in internet porn, and his award-winning solo show Huff (2012), which centers on the impact of solvent abuse and suicide on Indigenous youth.

The plot of Too Good To Be True is in keeping with Cardinal’s past examinations of people in fraught circumstances. Maria (Cheri Maracle), who is on run from the police, throws a last supper for her son Baby (Ryan Cunningham) and pregnant daughter Honey (Patti Shaughnessy) in an empty house that she “borrows”. In a succinct 70 minutes, the play explores kidnapping, teen pregnancy, breaking-and-entering and familial bonds. In the end, Cardinal hopes that the play is about “how she (Maria) finds grace in her desperation…That’s always the struggle with dark work: is it about the horrible things that happen; or is it about what these beautiful people do to overcome them?” he muses. He enthuses about Maracle “channeling” Maria, who is a “desperate mom beautifully spinning [a] dark reality more palatable, one white lie at a time.” Ultimately, “she makes us laugh until she breaks our hearts”. Meanwhile, Shaughnessy and Cunningham “delightfully portray” a young pregnant teen and her “sensitive yet insensitive” little brother, rounding out a family that “loves as much as they hurt each other” . . . but back each other up when the chips are down.

Of the play’s inspiration, Cardinal says simply, “my mom. She’s the best.” “Mom” is, of course, renowned Métis actor Tantoo Cardinal. “She’s an actor, which means good times come and go with the work, but she always came through and made it fun for us. Even though it probably wasn’t always fun for her.” Is he referring to the fact that, despite having a prolific and acclaimed career for 4 decades, she did not have a starring role in a film until Falls Around Her just last month? Perhaps… Happily, “she has a great time these days,” he smiles.

And Cardinal himself is also having a pretty good time – in part thanks to this lifelong proximity to performers. VideoCabaret’s ensemble has had a profound influence on him and his work since he stumbled onto rehearsals of Michael Hollingsworth’s New France at the Cameron House in 2000 as a teen. Cardinal is also a graduate of the National Theatre School, and has himself become a compelling presence on stage and screen. A talented musician, he has played his music on three continents. His album, This is Not a Mistake, is available online. And since 2012, Huff has been a runaway hit, earning two 2018 Dora Awards and an Edinburgh Festival Award (for the script and performance). It has been published, translated into French, and continues to tour. And it has just been released as a 3-chapter audio drama, as part of PlayME’s new season, in partnership with CBC Podcasts. Now an Associate Artist of VideoCabaret, Cardinal’s play will launch VideoCabaret’s black-box theatre in its permanent new home.

Despite his successes, Cardinal’s aspiration for Too Good to Be True is surprisingly modest, and rooted in his belief about theatre’s ability to “bring us together, show us a great time, and maybe we’ll get to see a little of ourselves in a different way”. He sidesteps a question about how audiences may connect with the play: it is not a vehicle for him to “impose” his opinions (which he downplays as “usually pretty dumb and short-sighted”). Warming to this topic, he asserts,  “I have no ideas on how to make the world a better place. I’m about right now, in the room, entertaining the audience.” He also underlines how, in Too Good to Be True, there are no culturally specific references: “We’ve got a cast of indigenous actors, and to be honest, we don’t discuss being Indigenous every day. That might be refreshing for Indigenous audiences. Might not.”

To Cardinal, it’s really, really simple. This play is “theatre the way I love theatre. It’s funny, sad, hopeful”. And whatever audiences may take away from the experience, his truest hope and his greatest pleasure lie in his confidence that “everyone will get a kick out of seeing Cheri, Patti, and Ryan in an admirably twisted new way…..”

l-r: Ryan Cunningham (Baby), Patti Shaughnessy (Honey), Cheri Maracle (Maria); photo by Michael Cooper

News You Can Use

What: Too Good to Be True, written and directed by Cliff Cardinal; Lighting Design by Andrew Dollar; Costume Design by Sage Paul
Performed by Cheri Maracle, Ryan Cunningham, Patti Shaughnessy

Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older

When: April 24 – May 19, 2019, 7:30 pm; Running Time: 70 minutes (no intermission)

Where: 10 Busy Street (Queen Street East and Logan), Toronto, ON.

Info and Tickets: www.videocab.com

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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