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The Globe and Mail

Rick Miller's Hardsell revamp seems more lost than ever

Rick Miller stars in Hardsell.

Michael Cooper

1.5 out of 4 stars

Rick Miller's Hardsell is back and out of beta – but, alas, this update simply replaces an old set of bugs with a new one.

Two and a half years ago, with director Daniel Brooks at the helm, Miller created the first version of this introspective solo show about advertising, the selfishness of genes and his love-hate relationship with corporations.

That initial production was slick, but Miller wasn't clear on what he wanted to say, or at least why he wanted to say it on a stage while dressed up as a cynical and crusty clown named Arnie.

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Ultimately the bleak and edgy approach taken then to the Naomi-Klein-meets-Richard-Dawkins material didn't really match up with Miller's natural personality – or, at least, the earnest inquisitiveness the actor-impressionist has projected to Canadian audiences in past fan favourites like Bigger Than Jesus.

Now, as the third and final part of a Factory Theatre retrospective that began with MacHomer, Miller has revamped and reclaimed Hardsell as a "lecture/performance" that syncs up better with the Miller brand of hopeful optimism. Unfortunately, the show otherwise seems more lost than ever; without Brooks on hand, it literally lacks direction.

Hardsell 2.0 starts promisingly enough, with a sunny Miller stepping onto a stage cluttered with props and costumes that is a cozy contrast to the empty, cold one Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates designed for the previous go-round. With the help of projections and video, the former Just for Laughs Gags host begins by discussing that earlier incarnation of the show before once again diving into some of the ethical dilemmas he faces as an informed and supposedly enlightened consumer in a modern, globalized world.

For example, Miller drives a hybrid car to reduce his carbon footprint, but fills it up at Esso despite that gas station's parent company ExxonMobil's history of funding lobby groups that deny climate change.

After detailing other borderline hypocrisy – he worked on a television show, but doesn't let his daughters watch TV – Miller transforms himself into Arnie, his mirror-image twin whose "heart is in the wrong place."

Taking over the show at this point, Arnie delivers an account of his parallel-universe theatrical career, performs a profane puppet show and microwaves a Barbie. He also pulls out a few impressive impressions of Bono and Morgan Freeman and drinks an entire can of Coke while cataloging the evils of soft-drink companies.

There are entertaining moments and intriguing tidbits here and there, but mostly Miller/Arnie's train of thought flies by much too quickly for an audience to fully jump on board. The creator-performer does not seem unaware of his production's limitations. "It is what it is," Miller apologizes early in the show. Later, he quotes Marshall McLuhan as he feels his way toward a conclusion: "Breakdown is breakthrough."

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In my review of the original Hardsell, I suggested Miller's concerns were somewhat out of date. This time around, however, the show's themes feel very timely. Indeed, Miller is asking many of the exact same questions as the Occupy Wall Street protesters. Unfortunately, also like them, he doesn't really seem to have any specific aim or answer beyond gathering a group of people together.

Hardsell 2.0

  • Written, directed and performed by Rick Miller
  • A WYRD and Necessary Angel co-production
  • At the Factory Theatre in Toronto

Hardsell 2.0 runs until Oct. 23.

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