All photos courtesy Skittles / Susan Farley
Michael C. Hall was dressed in a full-body catsuit—the kind Idris Elba and Taylor Swift will presumably wear in the film version of Cats. He crouched down on all fours and received a gentle pet down the back, his bushy tail surprisingly alive. He leapt up on a bodega counter, knocking bananas to the floor in front of candy-filled shelves. Then, of course, he burst into song.This was the Super Bowl Sunday Skittles commercial. Except it wasn’t playing on TV in between possessions—it was performed on a Broadway stage in front of a live audience.
Hall, best known for his work on Dexter and Six Feet Under, is what some might call a “serious” stage actor. The kind more likely to star in a Pulitzer-finalist solo play than one whose promo image is a cat barfing rainbows with red and green candies where his eyes should be. But there he was, feline from head to toe, in Skittles Commercial: The Musical, a 30-minute crossover event for which lines spilled out the doors of Town Hall Theater in New York City early Sunday afternoon.I was one of approximately 1,500 people who were all there because a $35 billion corporation somehow convinced us to happily pay to see a commercial. Tickets had cost anywhere from $30 to $200, and that didn't even include free Skittles, the only item being sold at concessions.The show started with Hall, dressed as a cat but playing himself(?), entering a bodega on the afternoon he was meant to perform in a live Skittles commercial—and things only grew more meta from there. In the opening number, Hall wondered aloud whether “this might have been a bad idea,” before tasting some Skittles and recanting his doubts. (A soundtrack for the show, which includes mesmerizing ASMR of Hall eating Skittles for four minutes, was released on Spotify last week.)
Hecklers planted in the audience soon complained about the very conceit of the show. “I thought this was gonna be one of those crazy ads with talking animals,” one griped.
“How do you know it isn’t?” Hall shot back. (He had a point!)“When do we get to see the play with the cat in it?” asked another, referring to the show within the show for which Hall was dressed.“That part’s going to be on the internet, right?” an usher pleaded.“This is all there is,” Hall deadpanned.“It’s not recorded, so enjoy the present moment, the here and now,” explained Ari Weiss, creative director of the ad agency behind the show, who was seated in the audience as a plant. But there had been no notice about switching off our phones for the performance, and if none of us posted about it on Instagram, did it even really happen?
Skittles Commercial was a self-aware parody at nearly every turn, frequently coming right out and asking the very questions it provoked. As many layers of meta-theatrics as there are colors in the Skittles rainbows should be expected from co-writer Will Eno (whose one-man play Hall recently headlined) and downtown director Sarah Benson, who are both known for challenging audience expectations and shattering illusion rather than creating it.Back on stage, fed up with the crowd mutiny, Hall threw his hands up and walked off. An announcement explained that musical was cut short due to “unforeseen circumstances," but no one made for the exits—we may have been suckers, but we were no fools! The curtain then opened on what looked like the sidewalk outside Town Hall, where fake audience members swarmed Hall and broke out into chants of the winking complaint printed on souvenir tees sold in the lobby: “Advertising Ruins Everything.”
“It makes me spend money I don’t even have,” sang one man holding three shopping bags. “Which wouldn’t be bad if I wasn’t a dad, with a wife and three children to feed.”“It shows me how perfect a woman can be, and reminds me how perfect I’m not,” a girl continued. Such acknowledgements of capitalism’s ills seemed designed to prove how very self-aware rainbow candies can be—without actually offering any serious critique of the system or the companies that benefit from it. Remember, the whole thing was still about selling Skittles, after all.The fake audience mob finally turned on Hall when he revealed that they were, in fact, actors who had been hired by Skittles. Two staged pseudo-realities—this one outside Town Hall and the other inside the bodega—collided in foggy chaos. An actor ripped open his shirt as the air vent above rained Skittles down his bare chest.
Fictional Hall’s body was crushed beneath a keeled-over ATM, like the wicked witch of the east, leaving him to haunt the stage as a ghost. An actor dressed as a grizzly bear silently crossed through the haze, a likely reference to Shakespeare’s famous stage direction: “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” Oh, Winston Churchill showed up too, and reminded everyone to enjoy the game. And someone read on Business Insider that nearly 600 packs of Skittles were sold at the show, which “really give meaning to Michael’s life.”The only detail of this spectacle that the show didn’t joke about was how much Skittles must have paid for the appearance of disrupting the famously pricey Super Bowl ad complex. (The cost for 30 seconds of airtime alone reportedly exceeded $5 million during the Super Bowl this year.) Beyond whatever they paid Hall plus all the non-headlining performers, Skittles also donated the ticket proceeds, and matched that donation, to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, an organization that supports people living with HIV and other critical illnesses. All of which is money well spent—especially when you consider the many write-ups just like this that mention those flattering facts (We can do meta, too, Skittles.)“This definitely was a bad idea,” Hall and the company belted out in the closing number. With rainbows sprouting in our brains like psychedelic cat puke, I'm not sure if any of us involved knew whether he was right.