Powerful Cliff Cardinal solo show confronts the emptiness of land acknowledgments

Though it’s no longer a Shakespeare bait and switch, ‘The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It’ feels extra prescient at a Mirvish theatre

What: The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It
Where: CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St.
When: Now, until Sun., April 2
Highlight: Cardinal’s livewire forays into audience participation
Rating: NNNNN (out of 5)
Why you should go: The show’s genuine commitment to challenging its audience is vitalizing and rare for 700-seat Canadian commercial theatre.

PLAYWRIGHT-PERFORMER CLIFF CARDINAL begins The Land Acknowledgement, or As You Like It by saying he’s going to convince white audience members to give stolen land back.

When it premiered at Crow’s Theatre in 2021, this ambitious promise came out of the blue since the show was advertised as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. As it went on, though, it revealed itself to be a scathing 90-minute rant about stolen land and not at all in iambic pentameter. This was a clever bait-and-switch metaphor for the Indigenous experience: Cardinal stole the show that the audience paid for and refused to give it back.

Even with the Mirvish-mandated honesty of its new title, however, The Land Acknowledgement still feels radical. Through an artful blend of sly humour and piercing audience confrontation, Cardinal offers a blistering interrogation of what it means to “acknowledge” at all.

Title aside though, the show is not really a land acknowledgement. Cardinal hates those. Instead, as he paces the stage with a cheeky grin, Cardinal acknowledges the stories behind the land. This, first and foremost, includes the stories of the Indigenous people from whom the land was stolen. But it also includes the stories of the white people who stole it; the people living on it, watching theatre on it and refusing to give it back.

By referencing treaty names and reciting the same words until they become routine, land acknowledgments can feel historical, absolving listeners from action. The Land Acknowledgement, in contrast, is livewire. The lights remain up on the audience the entire show, allowing Cardinal to demand real-time participation. He always seems to be looking right at you. This combines with the show’s meandering structure to create an electric, anything-can-happen atmosphere.

It also helps that the show is funny. Cardinal uses chuckles and charm to conduct a game of pull and push, tricking us into feeling comfortable and then gently catching us off guard. And even when the show gets dark, Cardinal keeps his wit.

The sparse set is footlights and a red velvet curtain. This invocation of English theatrical tradition lightly gestures to the As You Like It of it all, but it also serves a political function: not only is there nothing else to listen to but Cardinal, there is nothing else to look at but him and a curtain. So unlike a short pre-show acknowledgment, there is no way to mentally check out and ignore what’s going on: The Land Acknowledgement demands engagement.

Which is why it feels so necessary in a Mirvish theatre. The show’s genuine commitment to challenging its audience is vitalizing and rare for 700-seat Canadian commercial theatre.

And though Cardinal does not mention that the CAA’s possible future demolition has been in the news, The Land Acknowledgement reminds us what such an affair really is: two companies bickering over land that is not, and has never been, theirs.