New theatre Freshwater tackles ‘Constellations’ in Grand Rapids
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.–Theater is designed for stories with unconventional structures, it’s often the best kind of theater.
You can play with time, with space, with infinite possibilities. By breaking free of the strictures of realism, you invite the audience on a journey of imagination to explore deep emotions, ideas, and concepts.
It’s what the play Constellations at Grand Rapids’ newest theatre, Freshwater Performance Lab, in collaboration with The (Beat) Theatre Collective, sets out to do with the play by British playwright Nick Payne.
It’s a show that starts out playing a lot like David Ives’ “All in the Timing,” only Constellations uses humor as a spice in what is otherwise a drama rather than staying fully in the comedy genre as Ives’ show does.
Directed by Eric Hand, this two-person show provides a glimpse into the infinite possibilities of each human interaction and many of the possible timelines that could result from each decision and each statement that we make.
It helps that one of the characters, Marianne, played by Linnae Caudry, is a cosmologist and is able to give a brief intro to string theory and quantum mechanics. The show is not, however, an intellectual exercise existing merely to illustrate scientific concepts. Rather, the show uses science to explore human connection and how challenging it can be to really make it through a lifetime.
In the classic literary tradition of such novels as Catch-22, Constellations has no use for chronological time lines. It takes the audience forward and backward through the relationship, with Hand providing some theatrical hints of where the characters are by the use of stars shining through the backdrop in some scenes.
Roland (played by Nate Reynolds) and Marianne meet at a barbecue and sometimes end up together, sometimes end up apart. In those timelines where they do end up together, things continue to branch in many directions with the couple variously experiencing joys and connection or disappointments and a failure to connect.
Eventually, they are faced with critical decisions about life and death and the infinite possibilities of connection become even more intense for the characters.
That said, it isn’t an easy show to follow, even when you accept the premise and are willing to watch it play out. Its very structure means there will be some unanswered questions and the speed at which the play takes place means it is easy to miss things that are happening even if you are very attentive. Some throughlines are easier to follow than others (such as the variation in which the two use sign language to communicate), but the point isn’t to have a neat package of four plot lines. Rather, Constellations does suggest that each choice branches in many different directions.
Caudry and Reynolds work well together, mastering the challenge of building a relationship that has many different levels of connection. They have to switch, often in an instant, from a couple whose relationship is functional to one whose relationship is dysfunctional. They have to show all the different possible emotional choices from any given statement or action.
It’s something they do well, managing to raise it above the level of a theatre game to one in which there are authentic interactions between the two of them.
Caudry handles the accent better than her scene partner, but both make it clear that they are in England (with perhaps a bit of exposure to Australia) and performing the work of a British playwright.
Mike Sali doubles as the technical coordinator and lighting designer and he does an excellent job of helping the audience move through major time jumps with the use of lighting that must be done creatively in the absence of sophisticated instruments. Likewise, Treva Wyman makes very good use of the tight space with her scenic design and use of props, moving in only those necessary to tell the story and to provide some sense of change.
One of the challenges of a show like Constellations is that you never really get to know one version of a character. That’s fine in a show like “All in the Timing” where you are with the same characters for only ten minutes at most. When you stretch the device out to a full-length play (with no intermission), it is more difficult to be left with characters whose story is mapped not with an arc but with a scattershot graph.
Despite the good performances by Caudry and Reynolds and the smart direction by Hand, Payne’s play, which has gotten a lot of traction in the tehatre marketplace chiefly because of the unconventional structure, is ultimately unsatisfying. It is an exercise in cleverness and wit that attempts to be deeply emotional, but, like in some variations of the characters’ lives, can’t quite make the connection it needs to make.