By Megan Mooney
Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks are behind what is arguably my favourite theatre piece of all time – Bigger Than Jesus. So, as you can imagine, I was all a tingle when I saw that there was another collaboration between these two in the Canadian Stage Company 08/09 season – HARDSELL.
So, was my excitement warranted? Well, to quote Rick Miller, playing Arnie, playing Rick – “It’s not what I expected”.
Now, since the line was written by the creators of the piece, one assumes that means it wasn’t supposed to be what I expected. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. In this case it did both, well, it didn’t really work for me, but it did work for my show-partner on this one, John.
I didn’t hate the show or anything, I was mostly indifferent to it. There were moments I liked, but there were also moments where I’ll admit to being pretty bored. But let me give you an idea of the tone, because I have no doubt that this is the kind of show that some people would love.
The stage is bare save for an old battered magician type suitcase, a mic, and a stool for the first part of the show. It’s got a white screen behind, white floor below, a sound guy just off stage left, and someone I’m guessing was the stage manager just off stage right. All the tools necessary for the multi-media touches added to the show This is not a show with a narrative – a thesis, yes, a narrative, no. The whole thing is a disjointed bunch of pieces, seemingly unrelated characters.
One thing that struck me was that the main character – Arnie – had a kind of Tom Waits quality to his voice, and the character design was reminiscent of the Tarragon Theatre’s production of Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs’ Black Rider. I have no idea if this is intentional or not, but since the (very self-referential) show tells us that Miller has collaborated with Waits I found it pretty interesting. So, we’re left with a gravely-voiced bitter man in stark clown make up telling us about his life and some of the evils of consumerism. I mean, I think that’s what he was telling us.
While the show failed to engage me, John loved it. He loved the deconstruction of Rick Miller, the self-referential pieces that never let you forget that you were just watching a man playing a character on stage. John spoke in glowing terms about the Brechtian quality of the piece. He told me that he was worried that this would be an attempt at another Bigger Than Jesus, so he was pleased to see that this was a different approach. He did say that, although he enjoyed it, he recognizes that it’s not a very accessible or easy piece.
So, bottom line? HARDSELL is a very well executed show, overflowing with talent – but it’s not for everyone. Either I didn’t quite get it, or it didn’t quite make it’s point, but I was left wanting. I also acknowledge that being left wanting is perhaps exactly the feeling Miller and Brooks were going for. As John said: “I guess the reality is, Rick Miller is successful enough, he hardly has to do ‘accessible’ theatre any more.”
Check this out out if you like a bit of absurd, a bit of work, a bit of disjointedness, and a lot of talent.
– HARDSELL plays at Berkely Theatre (26 Berkeley) until May 9
– Show times are Monday-Saturday at 8 p.m.; matinees Wednesday 1:30 p.m. and Saturday 2 p.m.
– Talkbacks are held after every Wednesday matinee and Thursday evening performance
– Ticket prices range from $20 – $45, available online at canstage.com; by phone 416.368.3110; and in-person at Berkeley Street
– Available discounts include: 50% off rush seats for all performances (purchased in person one hour before showtime), PWYC Mondays (purchases begin at 10am on the day of the performance at customer service centres), $5 tickets for cheapTHRILLS pass holders.
Photo of Rick Miller by Michael Cooper