This fall, Factory Theatre is giving Toronto audiences a chance to review the vocal chameleon Rick Miller's theatrical career with a retrospective of three of his solo shows: MacHomer, his big commercial hit, as well as Bigger Than Jesus and Hardsell, his two collaborations with director Daniel Brooks.
MacHomer, an extended party trick with which Miller made his mark on the Fringe Festival circuit 15 years ago, is the first out of the gates, and it's a let-down.
Past its best-before date, the show provides an abridged production of Macbeth with the characters from The Simpsons playing all the roles; Miller does his well-honed impressions of all of them while his less-honed drawings of them appear projected on a screen.
Miller's Homer may be a tad too highly pitched, but he is spot-on with major characters such as Marge (Lady Macbeth) and Ned Flanders (Banquo) and minor ones like Troy McClure (who triples up as Ross, Lennox and Angus) and Krusty the Clown (perfectly cast as the drunken porter).
It's not always entirely clear what these Shakespearean Simpsons are saying, however – there are stretches, particularly those involving quiet Mr. Burns as King Duncan, when the lines are difficult to make out.
When Miller finds the right synergy between Shakespeare and the Simpsons in a gag, MacHomer remains quite funny – as when the title character interrupts one of the soliloquies: "Can't talk. Monologuing."
Too often, however, the script shows an overreliance on catchphrases that are depreciating faster than the American dollar. "Is this a dagger I see before me … or a slice of delicious pizza?" MacHomer says, or something similar. "Mmm … pizza."
To my complaint that The Simpsons is no longer such a zippy part of the zeitgeist, Miller has a built-in rebuttal in a song at the end: "Some would say we're past our prime, but turn on the TV, you'll find us every time."
While that's certainly true, the proof is in the audience reaction that Simpsons references are done (or overdone) as punchlines unto themselves. The strongest response on opening night was to brief cameos by Stewie from Family Guy and Kenny from South Park.
Miller, who collaborated mostly recently with Quebec director Robert Lepage on the nine-hour Lipsynch, has a quick, amiable wit – as was clear when the MacHomer machinery briefly broke down. In its current incarnation, however, MacHomer leaves hardly any room for Miller to let these qualities shine, or even for the audience to laugh: It's so rehearsed and cued to a pre-existing sound and video design that, in fact, it barely seems live.
Miller's impressions are indeed impressive, but they are not entertaining for long. And his show, ultimately, tells us nothing about either Macbeth or The Simpsons. In tone, it is closer to Family Guy, a nihilistic cartoon series that uses pop-culture references just for the sake of it.
MacHomer almost catches on to something of substance in the casting of Barney, The Simpsons's town drunk, as Macduff, a character who has to register horror on two occasions: First, when he discovers the murdered King Duncan and second, when he is informed that his entire family has been killed.
These moments of shocking discovery are something that actors rarely do convincingly, but Barney proves truly moving in grief. "What, all my pretty chickens," he gargles as the news slowly sinks in, "and their dam at one fell swoop?" This would have elicited tears were it not immediately undercut by a joke about livestock.
Miller is very defensive about MacHomer within MacHomer – it comes with a protective coating of self-deprecation. One of the most talented impressionists to come out of Canada since Rich Little, Miller has long seemed to feel a tad guilty about using his gifts. I remember an early Fringe show of his called Art? in which each sketch showing off his vocal virtuosity was followed by a fictional art critic asking, "But is it art?"
The fact is that Miller revives MacHomer at this point simply to fund his other projects (he has two new shows upcoming with Lepage) and that's become clear in his performance. He defends this approach in Hardsell, a solo piece in which he most fully battles his fears that he is a sellout. "I don't want to spend three months every year begging for corporate sponsorship or sucking up to government granting agencies for a few thousand bucks when I could make the same money doing MacHomer for a weekend in Albuquerque," he says in that play (which will appear in a revised version at Factory). Miller has no reason to feel bad for feeding his family. That said, it does seems a shame to me that a versatile actor who can portray such a wrenching Macduff – even through the filter of Barney – will appear only in MacHomer during the Stratford Shakespeare Festival 60th-anniversary season next year.
MacHomer runs until Sept. 25.
- Created and performed by Rick Miller
- Directed by Sean Lynch
- A WYRD Production
- At the Factory Theatre in Toronto