Title: Boom X
Written, performed and directed by: Rick Miller
Venue: Theatre Calgary
Year: Continues through Feb. 9
If Marshall McLuhan had been born 40 years later than he was, and won the fringe lottery, Understanding Media might have become Boom X.
Saturated with instantly recognizable classic-rock – and punk, prog-rock, hip-hop and reggae – media imagery and political touchstones, Boom X, the funny, sharply observed new solo show from Rick Miller (a sequel to his 2015 show Boom), is anything but fringe in production values – they’re spectacular – but has its roots in the DIY sensibility of the fringe movement, where Miller started 22 years ago by blending Macbeth and The Simpsons to create a huge hit called MacHomer.
Flash-forward 22 years, and Boom X – which had its world premiere on Friday night at Theatre Calgary – is a mashup of media, verbatim theatre, jukebox musical and autobiographical confession that’s as impossible to resist as a bowl full of Old Dutch barbecue potato chips in a suburban basement rec room where mid-70s teens across North America used to gather to smoke doobies and listen to the new Pink Floyd LP.
It also takes the audience into Miller’s own coming-of-age, growing up in Montreal between 1970 and 1995, where he adored the Expos, imitated rock stars, watched his parents divorce and studied architecture at McGill, before chucking the Frank Lloyd Wright scenario for theatre.
Miller tracks his own Generation X coming-of-age alongside a quartet of other real-life characters – architecture professor Howard, East German Annika, Ontario actress Stephanie and Brandon, a mixed-race kid with one Jamaican parent and another from South Africa doing his best to carve out an identity.
To tell those stories, Miller incorporates some of the tropes of verbatim theatre, interviewing each of them, then voicing their words as a screen scrolls their images, which he slowly adopts into physicalizations he uses to play each character throughout the show.
All of it is framed, in a way, by Miller’s own passion for baseball, a game that extends to infinity and beyond, and in particular the Expos, who arrived in the world when Miller did and got downsized into oblivion in ‘95, the same year that set in motion Miller’s own personal exodus from Montreal to Toronto.
Utilizing stunning multimedia design by Irina Litvinenko, the dramatic obstacle in this generational saga, Miller explains, is that unlike baby boomers and millennials, Generation Xers are defined by an absence of things: political ideals, career dreams, material aspirations.
All this North American generation has in common is the media we collectively consume together.
“We were fresh meat for the media machine,” Miller says.
Underneath the theatrical sugar rush of so much pop culture and so many political turning points – (Ronald Reagan: “Mr. Gorbachev: Tear down this wall!,” AIDS activism, the FLQ crisis, Pierre Trudeau) – there’s a more subtle story that plays out in Boom X, namely that four-part chorus of characters, all of whom play an integral role in Miller’s own coming-of-age story, so that Boom X eventually reveals itself as significantly more emotionally substantial than the MTV flash-cut videos he emulates in his storytelling here.
Miller also uses all that onstage mediated sensory assault as a bit of a theatrical curveball, to throw us off the fact that with this smart, funny and engaging Boom X, he shares a generational story no one else could share, with quite the same degree of authenticity and heart: his own.
As catchy as a Genesis tune, as accessible as American network television (circa 1978), as emotionally reassuring as 70s American breakfast cereal, and as eager to please as a puppy, Boom X is an audience-pleasing earworm for the eyes, ears and hearts of – sorry – white people! (Miller acknowledges this himself in the show.)
Just don’t expect to leave this exuberant new Canadian play feeling comfortably numb.