It coulda been, shoulda been, mighta been in Theatre Nova’s ‘Constellations’
ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional space to feature new works that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the raindrops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.
Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 1:10 minutes.
Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.
I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.
Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.
The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.
The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.
Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.
I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.
Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.