We’re Still Not Completely Sold
HARDSELL 2.0 is a totally revamped version of Rick Miller's 2009 show exploring the pervasiveness of marketing and advertising. Unfortunately, this pitch still has a few holes.
Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street)
October 13–23; Tuesdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.
HARDSELL 2.0 begins before you know it. In the Factory Theatre lobby, actor and creator Rick Miller mixes and mingles with the arriving audience members, showing off his artwork on the walls and promoting his partnership with Because I Am a Girl, which is receiving Miller’s earnings for the show. Inside the theatre, the soundtrack of Miller’s international hit MacHomer plays overhead, as set pieces from that show and his other projects like Bigger Than Jesus and Mulroney: The Opera crowd the edges of the stage. Eventually Miller hops on, introduces himself, and launches into the history and context of the show we’re about to witness. In doing all this, Rick Miller is blatantly selling himself. And just like the best advertising campaigns, we’re unaware we’re being manipulated until it’s too late.
Choices like this reflect Miller’s desire to take the 2009 version of HARDSELL, which didn’t exactly sell, and inject more of himself, his views, and his attitude into it. Taking the direction from co-collaborator Daniel Brooks and putting it into his own hands, Miller turns HARDSELL 2.0 into an examination of our relationship with marketing and advertising that has a decidedly cheerier tone than its predecessor, much more in line with Miller’s own perspective. In it, Miller plays both himself, a conflicted yet hopeful optimist, and Arnie, his alter-ego cynical clown with his heart in the wrong place. They each attempt to “sell” the audience on their own points of view: either that we need to change our relationship with advertising, or embrace an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude. In the end, the good guy prevails. But billed as part lecture, part circus sideshow, and part multimedia extravaganza, the show is as difficult to navigate as it sounds.
While the opening works thematically, Miller operates on the assumption that everyone in the audience will recognize the music and props from his previous shows. That’s understandable, but adds to the Rick-centric focus of the show that is, at some points, alienating. While we all struggle with hypocrisies like Miller’s—driving a hybrid but spending $11,000 on Esso gas, say—it sometimes feels like a staged version of a resumé. And in a show that depends greatly on Miller’s likeability, which is usually never lacking, rubbing the audience the wrong way would kill the pitch.
Following two of Miller’s well-established works, MacHomer and Bigger Than Jesus, HARDSELL is still a newborn, relatively speaking, especially this current re-envisioned remount. So there are still some kinks to work out technically, too. Not the least of these: an awkwardly long transition from Miller into his alter-ego, Arnie the cynical clown (though, we understand the process required for proper makeup application), and a climactic final speech ending with a hearty “Yes we can!” reference to Obama that stumbled and lost momentum. No one expects every show to flow without hiccup, but to sell means to bullshit your way through them, which Miller didn’t always.
HARDSELL 2.0 was based on a line from one particular review of the original HARDSELL by the Globe‘s Kelly Nestruck that “nobody really minds” our market-driven culture. Well, seeing this play in the context of the Occupy Wall Street movement sweeping the world, it’s clear that Miller and a few other people do, in fact, mind corporate greed and corruption. Miller has a point, he has a message, but it gets lost in Arnie’s non sequiturs, visual tricks, and voice impressions (as entertaining as they are).
What’s for certain, though, is that Miller is a heck of a performer and really put his guts into this show. But advertising is also a heck of a complicated issue, unique to every individual. It might even be a topic too large for Miller to tackle.