The risk, the danger, the challenge– already this piece of theatre has proven to have a pulsating heart with the power to move people and evoke true emotion, even defensiveness from its audience. Rick Miller plays Arnie, the cynical, beaten down clown who is “Rick Miller’s” downtrodden mirror twin. Here, this bitter clown, a mixture of Vaudevillian, Woody Allen and Krusty from The Simpsons, spins a web of cells and the roots of mimesis that live in our brains, the same mimesis that spawned the theatre, and the meme, the same penchant toward replication and its role in human survival. The cell, through replication, begins to consume, and as it becomes a consumer, the cell becomes the sell and thus theatre, advertising, the corporate world, and our own biology are neatly crammed into Arnie’s beat-up suitcase.
There is a lot going on in Hardsell and it seems, at times, like an abstract painting, where everyone in the audience sees something different. It is clear that Miller, with brilliant director, Daniel Brooks, seek to expose how slyly advertisers have integrated their slogans, their products, their logos, and their ideologies into our world, and into our brains. Miller and Brooks raise questions that have no answers, and play with not only the power of such things as an actor drinking a Coke onstage (it makes you in the audience want a Coke!!), how quickly we sell out our lofty ideals for money, and how we are all just trying to sell something, but also with how pretentious it can sound to try to counteract reality, to raise children to be “citizens not consumers” and to all be heroes, which after all, is the mantra that Joseph Campbell was trying to sell. It isn’t about packaging a solution to this problem, and then trying to bottle it and sell it as the antidote to the corporate world we live in. It is about awareness.
Awareness involves introspection and here Miller and Brooks have created an environment where the clown, Arnie, is able to scrutinize the actions of “Rick Miller,” while the audience’s identification is split between identifying with a man trying to “do the ‘right’ thing” and the reality that maybe such crap is all moot because the world is harsh and dark and just going to break your heart anyway. Sounds depressing; and to some people it may be, and to some people the stalk, cold reality is a refreshing change from typical escapist entertainment. But to boil it down to being about the proactive versus the cynic is to dismiss the complexity that is Arnie.
Arnie is a performer, he is a busker, he is a clown. The play can be read as a commentary on how commercialism has sucked the ingenuity out of the theatre. It can be read as how advertising has the power to corrupt our innocent urge to replicate, to imitate, to play and to mime. But the joy in Hardsell is that while Arnie is being reduced to a drunk puddle of bitterness, rejection and frustration, Rick Miller, under the makeup, is reveling in the joy of the play. I was reveling in the exhibition of skill and exuberant energy Miller was proudly showing off, which did not distract me from the series issues and cerebral connections I was grappling with, but both existed in tandem; in balance. We are all complicit in the creation of a world that is corrupt, bleak and founded on greed. We are also all complicit in the creation of a world that allows for a man to stand on a stage and recreate pitch perfect Looney Tunes voices, to sing, dance, confound and dazzle. A world where a clown can stad on a stage and say, “I can do anything I want up here. That is the beauty of it.” And there is such beauty in life, there is such wonder and marvels of the natural, the biological, the theatrical, even the corporate. We are all complicit in these things too. Joy can come so easily. Rick Miller’s Arnie turns into Sylvester the Cat for five seconds and something spurts serotonin in my brain. And that’s magic.
This play didn’t bowl me over with any astute, synthesized revelations; but rather provided me with an array of different directions in which to let my brain wander. We are all selling something, whether it’s McDonald’s food to children, or the mantra “follow your bliss,” or theatre reviews on a blog. We are constantly buying and selling, just to survive. Rick Miller and Daniel Brooks are selling a show, which I think bursts with creativity and integrity, and as a critical consumer, this is just the sort of theatre that I am eager to buy.