Drama Club: Sell Biology
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Drama Club: Sell Biology

Each week, Drama Club looks at Toronto’s theatre scene and tells you which shows are worth checking out.

Something about this get-up makes us want to shout “Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!” Photo by Michael Cooper.

Rick Miller has made a name for himself through his explorations of two of our society’s most important (and ever-present) icons: Jesus Christ and Homer Simpson. MacHomer, his one-man version of Shakespeare’s Scottish play as performed by the cast of Matt Groening’s yellow-skinned dysfunctional family, has toured the world to great acclaim. His follow-up to that show was Bigger Than Jesus, a collaboration with accomplished director Daniel Brooks, which examined everyone’s favourite carpenter from several different angles. In the duo’s latest co-creation, HARDSELL, familiar cultural figures are absent. Instead, they give us an entirely new face. Literally.
Miller comes on stage in white-face, a sinister clown somewhere in between Beetlejuice and Jack Nicholson. And he informs us that he is not Rick Miller. Rather, he is Rick’s less-famous brother, Arnie. Arnie is a failed theatre artist who has come to help us take a long, hard look at consumer culture. Because Miller is indeed the man behind the mask, this means a performance as varied as it is virtuosic, skipping from a James Brown impression, to a PowerPoint lecture, to some soft shoe, to a story about a sexual encounter with Ayn Rand, to a somewhat dirty-minded puppet. And somewhere along the way, we start being just as interested in Arnie’s life as we do with what he has to tell us about capitalism. HARDSELL is definitely Rick Miller’s most difficult show to date. But it also just might be his best.
After the fold, we’ve got an interview where Rick Miller tells us all about capitalism and cynicism, plus we work up an Appetite over at Passe Muraille, and there’s more theatre news and reviews.

Rick Miller Sells it to Us

Rick Miller: the good twin. Photo by Michael Cooper.

Torontoist: Your previous shows have explored characters like Jesus, Homer Simpson, and Macbeth: all people the audience is pretty familiar with. In HARDSELL, you bring us a whole new character. How do the experiences compare?
Rick Miller: My shows seem to be evolving into more and more complex experiences for both the audience and for me. I suppose this is also making them less and less ‘accessible’. MacHomer is easy to describe and relatively easy to understand. Bigger Than Jesus (BTJ) is more nuanced, but still has a certain combination of reverence and irreverence that appeals to a large audience. HARDSELL is, ironically, probably the hardest ‘sell’ because we are tackling a huge topic, that of how difficult it is to survive and find meaning in a consumer society. There are no answers provided; only a reflection of the somewhat tortured life of a critic, a cynic, a joker, a clown. The experience for the audience depends on how open they are to open-endedness and to a certain introspection. I suspect that most audience members prefer the uplifiting message of BTJ or the zaniness of the Simpsons doing Macbeth to a kind of Brechtian absurdist tale.
In this show, you highlight the sometimes problematic relationship between art and commerce in this city. What do you think needs to change about arts funding in Canada?
I can’t say that I have any direct problem with arts funding bodies, given that my company WYRD Productions is a corporation, and I have never received any government or corporate sponsorship. That being said, CIBC and BMO have a great deal to do with our being able to create and present HARDSELL. Essentially, we are a counter-culture show in the belly of a cultural institution that depends heavily on funding. What good does that do? What do our ironic statements reveal? Hard to say. All I know is that because the government (especially our current federal governing body) undervalues the arts, most not-for-profit theatre companies end up making artistic decisions based on marketing concerns (i.e “putting bums in seats”). It’s a very complex issue, given that the cynical part of me (Arnie) questions the usefulness of theatre to begin with. Millions are spent on branding Toronto as ‘a City of Culture’, and there is still such rampant poverty all around us.
In the show, you essentially play your own evil twin. Is “Arnie” someone you’ve been thinking about for a long time? How much of Arnie is in Rick Miller?
I prefer to think of Arnie as cynical rather than evil. He isn’t the one selling crack to kids, but he takes great delight in pointing it out to us. He also delights in tearing down hypocrisy and false virtue. He is a tired old cynic, and one voice among many I have inside my head. Arnie takes over when I am alone on tour in the USA, living out of hotel rooms and confronted by the superficiality, overwhelming banality, and moral bankruptcy of our culture. That being said, I live most of my life as a version of the Rick Miller described in the play. I believe that meaningful action is possible, and I try to walk the talk as much as possible. Of course, I am flawed, complicit, and something of a hypocrite, but at least I am aware of it and try to act against it. HARDSELL is not railing against advertising so much as railing against cynicism. Cynicism doesn’t DO anything. Once we recognize that advertising isn’t evil, but is built into our DNA, maybe we can then focus on selling better ‘stuff’.
How long have you and Daniel Brooks been working on the show, and how has it evolved over the years?
Daniel and I have been at it for about 3 years. We had an initial run in Winnipeg in 2007. Since then the economy has tanked and our initial focus on the lies inherent in advertising started seeming less important. Yes, our play warns of the kind of greed and selfishness that has torn apart economies, but it is far from an “I told you so” kind of posturing. Our difficulty now, frankly, is that people are more aware of corporate injustice and manipulation, and they somehow come to HARDSELL expecting a full-throttled attack on capitalism. What we are presenting is more subtle. More of a criticism of criticism itself.
HARDSELL continues until May 9.

On Stage This Week

Linnea Swan works up an appetite. Photo by John Lauener.

Will the Exchange Rate Collective and Volcano Theatre’s Appetite whet yours, or cause you to lose it? Probably, both. The piece, created by performers Claire Calnan, Adam Lazarus, and Linnea Swan, with the help of choreographer Kate Alton and director Sarah Sanford, is a one-hour rumination on human hungers: both for food and for sex. A hit at the 2007 SummerWorks Festival, Appetite returns now to Theatre Passe Muraille, and it hasn’t lost any of its flavour. A combination of dance, song, movement, dramatic scenes, and just plain weirdness, this show is visually appealing, outrageously funny, and disturbingly delicious. Our favourite vignettes were the synchronized slaughterhouse dance, the stop-watch-timed eating competition, and the sequence where Swan performs a solo dance that is somehow goofy and erotic all at once, and then Calnan mimics it, minus the erotic part. The only way Appetite fails to sate you is that it leaves you wanting more. It plays until April 26.
Soulpepper’s top-notch production of Glengarry Glen Ross continues at the Young Centre. David Mamet’s expletive-filled play about a very angry (and very macho) group of real estate agents all competing to save their jobs is brought brilliantly to life through a combination of a cast that includes Eric Peterson, Peter Donaldson, Jordan Pettle, William Webster, and Albert Schultz, and Ken MacDonald’s elegant and fuctional set design. One of Soulpepper’s strongest shows in recent memory, the show has just been extended until May 19.
I Have AIDS!, a new cabaret, opens on Friday at Buddies. The piece, written by HIV-negative playwright and Buddies co-founder Sky Gilbert, features performances by Gavin Crawford and David Yee. It plays until May 3.