A fine space-time romance at Curious Theatre
In his delightful book “In the Blink of an Eye,” Oscar-winning film and sound editor Walter Murch offers an analogy about why film “cuts” work, using an example about bees.
“A beehive can apparently be moved 2 inches each night without disorienting the bees,” he writes. And if you move a beehive a couple of miles away from its original site, cruel prankster you, bees will find it again and thrive. If, however, writes Murch, “the beehive is moved 2 yards, the bees will be fatally confused.” 6665
Murch’s example might apply to playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations” — onstage at the Curious Theatre Company through April 15 — and not merely because one of the play’s two characters is a beekeeper.
“Constellations” is made up of cut upon cut. Some are dramatic: The characters take a leap into a future in which a terminal illness looms. More often the shifts are subtle — a word here, a phrase there. This could have thrown the audience into aggravated confusion. That it doesn’t attests to the playwright’s skills at moving the beehive, or in this case, the story of Marianne and Roland. Or, should I say “stories”? Cambridge University cosmologist Marianne (Kelsey Didion) and beekeeper Roland (Brett Aune) meet at a barbecue. As cute as it is, that first introduction doesn’t quite take. He mentions a wife. The end. They meet cute again. It doesn’t take. He’s still got a wife. The end. They meet again. Third time’s a charm. Sort of.
These meetings aren’t sequential but parallel, because Payne has set Marianne and Roland’s relationship in the web of theoretical physics. The pair exists in the Multiverse, that hypothetical construct that argues that there are a slew of parallel universes, including but hardly limited to the one I just wrote that sentence in. Or as Marianne tells Roland, “In the Quantum Multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an
unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”
The play’s many repetitions aren’t merely of the “meet cute” variety. As “Constellations” progresses and regresses, there are his and her indiscretions, hers and his recriminations. Confessions and anger are looped and tweaked. Sci-fi movies and television series have a lot more tools to pull off this sort of to-and-fro, infinity and beyond stuff. Theater must make do with language.
A funny bit finds Marianne replacing “furnace” with “inferno” and then “sauna” in each iteration of a wisecrack. There’s a shift from a riff on Heather (the name of Roland’s sister) to a men- tion of heather, the flora that thrives on countryside moors and flavors Roland’s artisanal honey.
In places where Payne could have over-explained, he allows for ellipses. Yet we glean what’s transpiring. More than once, Marianne says to Roland, “A lot of people apparently never go through with it.” Although “it” is never named, it’s fairly certain Marianne is talking about assisted suicide.
The set is stark. Hexagonal blocks of various heights speak of geometry’s role in the universe; they also give a nod to the founding shape of the honeycomb. Shifts in time and space are signaled by Shannon McKinney’s lighting design or the actors’ movements.
The play is also swift, as if its ideas and possibilities have been placed in a particle accelerator. A lot takes place (and doesn’t) in the one act’s 70 minutes.
One thing is clear: Payne trusts the audience to not be overwhelmed by the conceit. It’s less clear if this production extends that same confidence. As Marianne and Roland, Didion and Aune may be too attentive to the rigors of their character’s repetitions. While the pair (or versions of them) embrace, canoodle and kiss, their affection remains tepid. The warmth that critics celebrated in their reviews of the British debut (starring Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall) or the Tony-nominated transplant, which featured Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, is largely absent.
Directed by Christy MontourLarson, this local premiere has plenty of brainy charms. But Payne’s more tender revelations about life, impending death and romance’s hits and near misses feel muted.
“Constellations” is an engaging and melancholy affair. But I craved more awe. After all, these are two humans tangled in the web of the cosmos. Anson Nicholson’s projection design, with its images of galaxies and stars courtesy of our friends at NASA, only whetted that craving.
Kelsey Didion and Brett Aune explore a relationship through parallel stories — as though they inhabit a Multiverse, caught in the web of theoretical physics — in “Constellations.” Provided by Curious Theatre