In On It is “powerful” experimental theatre, now playing on the Toronto stage
When I saw the first Toronto production of Daniel MacIvor’s In On It in 2002, it blew my high-school-aged mind. It was a piece of meta-theatre about the messiness of endings, living with disappointment, and how our expectations of life and of theatre share some uncanny similarities: we’re hoping things will satisfyingly come full circle, that they’ll work out, that we’ll leave on something pithy or fun or daring. In theatre, we can engineer an ending; in life, it rarely works out so well.
Nearly fifteen years later, I was eager to see emerGENce Theatre’s fresh production of the show at Theatre Passe Muraille. Some things about it have aged better than others, but with age comes wisdom, experience and melancholy. In On It has all of these things, and it’s a show you want to get in on.
In On It is a play about love, life, and loss, and a play about the theatrical form; it asks us to let go of our expectations for both. As the title implies, it’s more fun for people who feel like insiders to the theatre scene, but its themes have a wider resonance.
This One (Graham Conway) is mourning the loss of Brandon Nicoletti’s That One (who, despite this, will be acting in the play). We get flashes of insight into their relationship, which are juxtaposed with This One’s painstakingly engineered story of tragic sad-sack Raymond King. A control freak, This One has a difficult time when questions are raised about the pat nature of his story and what it might psychologically represent.
Throughout, the actors cut out of scenes, argue and rewind, constantly redefining what space is real and what is fictional. There are moments of heart-stopping genuineness within the artifice, until you realize they’re also created.
These moments exist in large part due to the actors, who, though initially seeming a little young for the roles, ably embody a range of characters as they switch off, searching for the best way to portray them. There’s energetic choreography, captivating caricatures, meaningful glances and a most awkward and hilarious accidental booty call to experience. It’s a great peek into acting that conveys deceit, versus acting that feels brutally real, and both men are adept at knowing when to layer up and when to strip down.
The only exception to this is during one crucial scene (a false climax which gives us an “expected” resolution), robbing it of its potential power to surprise the audience when depth is revealed as merely cliché. The play is constantly trying to subvert our expectations, which means it often walks a fine line between mockery and thoughtfulness and then shakes you if you get too involved. Irreverence comes with its pitfalls, though, and this game doesn’t work when it’s played too self-consciously.
(This isn’t the show’s only issue; there’s an acknowledgement of the uncomfortable stereotypes in This One’s devised female roles, but there’s not much of an attempt to correct them.)
Fittingly, for a play that has to twist and turn on a dime, the staging is very simple, just two chairs and a pivotal grey wool jacket. A shaft of light forms a box, creating a clearly delineated “playing” space. This cleverly fits a recurring philosophical theme about characters wanting to be at the centre of the world, but not being able to see the circle around them; here, we’re trying to fit a round peg in a square hole.
In On It feels a little short at around 70 minutes, which is a testament to how powerful its potentially distancing, choppy and experimental nature actually is. I wanted to get to know these characters even just a bit more, in all their layered glory: the ones that are artificial, and the ones that feel real but are really just more artifice. But that’s the thing about life: you don’t always get as much as you wanted. You have to learn to live with what you get, and in the case of In On It, you get quite a lot. See it before it ends.
- In On It is playing at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue) until February 12, 2017.
- Showtimes are 7:30pm Wednesday-Saturday, with 2:00pm matinees Saturday and Sunday.
- Tickets range from $17-22 and can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at 416-504-7529.
Photo of Brandon Nicoletti and Graham Conway by Samantha Polzin