Performed by Rick Miller
Directed by Daniel Brooks
Set, lighting and sound design by Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates
Berkeley Street Theatre
Playing through May 9  (416) 368-3110

Reviewed by Robin Breon

An actor friend of mine with whom I kept in touch for awhile after graduation was excited when he was called back for a Chrysler television commercial only a few months out of university. The commercial was national in scope and would play over many months so the potential income was quite significant—huge in fact, for a recently graduated theater student who had loans to pay back. After several call backs in which my friend was told he was surely the frontrunner for this project, the director pulled him aside and told him that, after considerable thought, he just was not right for the “role."

“Why,” my friend said, “didn’t I give the best reading—was there something else you were looking for?”

“No, no. It’s not that,” the director said. “It’s your head.”

“My head—what’s the matter with my head?” my friend queried.

Staring him straight in the eye with a look of great concern, the director said: “It’s just too big. It fills too much of the screen. We need more car and less head. I’m sorry.”

Needless to say, after two weeks of call backs, my friend was devastated and seriously considering cranial surgery in order to advance his chances in commercial television work.
These sad indignities, that are regularly forced upon young actors, and the many compromises that are the natural result of optimism and artistic ideals quickly conflating into the cynical, real- world of making a living through commercials, industrial shows, sitcom pilots and B movies, are enough to make one want to shake hands with the devil if the price is right.

This, I believe is what Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks might have been trying to get at with their latest one person show, Hardsell. They begin by addressing the big questions: the artist’s responsibility to speak to the great, pressing issues of the day: the crisis of capitalism, the persistence of poverty throughout the world, the environment, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But in no time at all these big (and important) intellectual ideas are reduced to trivial, petty, small minded banality. They are readily assisted in this endeavor by the main (and only) character of the piece, an evil “Joker” like character in the mold of Heath Ledger’s recent interpretation of the character, who is purportedly the twin brother of one Rick Miller.

According to this guy, the artist as actor has one major responsibility that he better be good at—selling. The commodification of cultural product is now so pervasive that the artist has become nothing more than a commodities trader with the chief commodity in question being his or her own talent. Introduction to theater improv, sales and product placement 101.

The Joker informs us that even the sainted Rick Miller himself has sold out to the Disney Corporation where he hosts a television program called “Just for Laughs”. A Faustian bargain if there ever was one. In no short order this Joker is selling us Hummers, touting and dissing (in the same swallow) the Coca Cola Company, having sex with Ayn Rand, riffing on the philosophy of Joseph Campbell and insulting Naomi Klein at a drunken dinner party. All this while his alter ego (the real Rick Miller) stays comfortably at home (observable on video cam) with his spouse and two daughters.

There is a play here somewhere but I’m not sure Brooks and Miller wanted to go where you needed to go in order to make it work. Spending an entire evening with Lucifer (who’s entirely corrupted at the git-go) really isn’t much of a dramatic arch to unfold in a running time of 80 minutes. Watching the gradual corruption and ultimate degradation of a wonderful talent like Rick Miller, however, could have been a very powerful evening of theatre—maybe even a play with two acts.  

As the movie’s last Joker, Heath Ledger has a final confrontation with Batman in which he confronts society’s moral code that the Caped Crusader is so ardently defending: “…it’s a bad joke - dropped at the first signs of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see – I’ll show you… when the chips are down, these civilized people… they’ll eat each other. See I’m not a monster… I’m just ahead of the curve.”

Like I said, you might not want to go there. But have no fear, Miller and Brooks will return to Berkeley Street Theatre again next season with another one-hander entitled This Is What Happens Next, billed as “a scary fairy tale with a happy ending that tries to make sense of life in the modern world.”  We’ll all be waiting to see how things turn out.

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