In This is What Happens Next, Daniel MacIvor first appears as himself, giddy with nervous energy about the night's potential. His show is inspired by his last "shitty couple of years," in which he got divorced, moved, lost thousands of dollars, and messed around with coke and booze. The Canadian performer fictionalizes his story through multiple characters — men, women, and even a little boy — in a mesmerizing and unexpectedly funny way.
The mixing of fact and fiction come together at the very beginning of the show. MacIvor incorporates his opening plea to the audience to turn off their cellphones into part of his story. He doesn't turn his off because he's expecting a call from his lawyer, who is later represented by a character in the show.
This immediately grabs the audience's attention. Will he just chat with them, interacting with late-comers like a genial stand-up comic? Or is he setting up one of the central premises of the show, that life is a story with no real happy endings, and people should just go along for the ride?
But something is stopping us from going with the flow, and that thing is our will. It pushes us to take chances or make changes in our lives. MacIvor embodies this in the aptly named character of Will, a tough-talking guy whose candor is very different from the chit-chatting MacIvor in the introduction. As the motivating force behind our base decisions, Will shatters the fairy-tale illusions we create and the lies we tell ourselves to help us sleep at night. If a character's going to die he says so, plain and simple.
Next the actor switches to Warren. This is where the play really kicks off. Warren is a angry gay man who recently split with his lover. He wants his favorite possessions back, even if they aren't his really his favorites. He just wants them back anyway. And so he plans to crash his ex's barbecue and liberate his shoes, his windbreaker, and his John Denver CD.
Like most of MacIvor's characters, Warren talks exceedingly fast, trying to stay calm but failing utterly. With his hands shaking, outraged at the injustice of his situation, he describes his breakup. He admits some of his flaws, too — he wasn't very gentle when he dumped his beau. But he still wants his stuff back.
Warren's lawyer Susan doesn't think visiting the ex is a good idea. Susan keeps leaving messages for her client, but she has problems of her own. She does what she can as a mom, but she's obviously struggling to raise her kids. One, an Aleister Crowley-loving goth, wants her teeth sharpened for Christmas. The other daughter has become embroiled in a real-estate scam. Only her iron will keeps her children from prison or hell.
MacIvor makes Susan almost as tough as Will, but her flaws are more transparent than Warren's. She folds her arms and shakes her head as she recalls her clueless clients, even though she's far from perfect herself.
And then there's Aaron, the astrologer. He speaks in a higher voice and looks to the future as well as his confused past. See, Aaron used to be a she. Now he's a bit of both, but comfortable with his body. Like most of us, he has always sought change, trying to fix the life he's broken. Although Aaron is one of MacIvor's most extreme characters, it's still easy to relate to his desire to transform himself, whether it's through a drastic hair cut or sex-change surgery.
Since there's no set (just a black background) and only a few props, the lighting is essential in getting our imaginations working. Different colored lights are used to denote changes of scene and atmosphere. For most of the play, the actor stands in a square of light, his shadow cast upon it like a spirit trapped in a lantern. Aaron's red light gives him a mystical aura without distracting from the action. Apart from a couple of bright flashes, the lighting is subtle — a sidelight to direct out attention or a narrow beam for MacIvor to teeter on.
Speaking of teetering, there's Mike. He's always unsteady on his feet. Maybe it's because he's got a drinking problem. And he does. In this case, the problem is that he drank all the booze in his basement, including the bottles with cigarette ends dumped in them. He's in a cycle of consumption and regret; his best option to break the cycle is to teach his seven-year-old how to ride a bike. Tha is, if only Mike can stay sober long enough to do it.
Mike is a change after the cynical characters of Warren, Susan, and Aaron. He comes across as more positive, accepting his faults instead of raging against them. He has a gravel voice and an open, vulnerable expression on his face. When he cracks wise, he's like a comedian who's past his prime and preserved in vinegar. MacIvor says that this character is partly inspired by his dad, and he approaches Mike with a mixture of admonishment and compassion.
After Mike, MacIvor pushes it into a higher gear with Kevin, a creative little boy who likes to dress up as the Little Mermaid at Halloween. He tells a story about a giant who also has a drinking problem (this time with magic juice). Kevin talks non-stop with excited energy, eyes wide, desperate to tell us his tale. He is instantly likable and funny. MacIvor really captures the world of his story through the child's eyes, putting it into perspective with imaginative allegory. Like a singer, MacIvor has great breathing technique. He does not pause through most of Kevin's verbal outpouring.
A relative of the giant also makes a cameo appearance. This monster is so big that he gets airplanes in his hair and has to be careful not to crush whole towns under his feet. But it turns out that the giant might be the answer to all the characters' problems.
Mostly, we just hear Kevin's drinking giant via booming, crashing footsteps. Like the lighting, sound is carefully used to open out MacIvor's play. The frighteningly loud footsteps are the best example.
Music is also used sparingly. "Happy Ending" is the main theme, a generally upbeat piano-led piece that denotes MacIvor's hopes rather than dark reality. Most of his acting is done standing on one spot, so the music is a great way to suggest movement. He talks about walking from one place to another, and the music does the rest.
The actor doesn't change costumes or pull out props every time he changes characters. He wears a pink shirt and a dark suit, slipping the jacket off to play himself at the beginning and end. As the astrologer, he mimes going through a deck of tarot cards, looking into the future. The most important prop is his cellphone, since many of the characters are waiting for a call from someone. Waiting for change or an answer to their question, or a decision to be made for them — a voice in their ear to subdue the one in their heads.
By examining his own life and mistakes, MacIvor has come up with many themes to explore. A central one: philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's idea that giving into your will, that compelling spirit in the lantern, leads to unhappiness. Through all his vignettes, he shows that the ego wants to want. Most people spend their lives desperately trying to do what is right, and end up satisfying their egos anyway. In This is What Happens Next, MacIvor can have it both ways by creating multiple endings. If only real life was so flexible, or simple.
Like Warren, Aaron, Susan and Mike, the show has flaws. In one scene, it took a moment for the sound from MacIvor's microphone to reach the nosebleed seats, so some words were missed. For patrons closer to the action, the actor's rapid speech also caused them to lose a line or two.
The show's major flaw, however, is its lack of depth. In 90 minutes, we have just enough time to meet the characters without really digging deep into their psyches. They're believable, entertaining, and usually pleasant. But they aren't complex enough to evade their stereotypical roots. There's the frustrated gay man pissed with his partner for obsessing over furniture, the mother who can't communicate with her goth daughter, the happy drunk. It's apparent that some of the messier details of the actor's recent life have been simplified to keep the show tight. A little more messy truth wouldn't have gone amiss, and we hope that he drops his artifice and tells the whole truth one day.
When MacIvor ties up the loose ends of his story, he discusses what happens to these people instead of showing us. We would like to have seen more of the characters, but then, leaving the audience wanting more is a time-honored tradition for performers everywhere.