The connection between our recent confirmation of Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves and St. Valentine’s Day may not be immediately apparent, but they are both covered by this rubric: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than our dreamed of in your cosmology.
Love is inherently strange — which is to say, it seems irrational. Lifetime pair-bonding is not the evolutionary ideal. A male who impregnates many females is most likely to spread his genetic material through time; for females, it makes no difference, genetically speaking, if they have children with one partner or many. Most mammals are wildly promiscuous. And yet we humans crave one love, for all time. (There are no Valentine’s cards which say “I will love you, and three others, until Tuesday.”)
And, as it turns out, physics is equally strange. The laws which govern the visible universe and the laws which govern subatomic particles are not only different but incompatible, as Marianne (Lily Balatincz), a theoretical physicist, explains to Roland (Tom Patterson), a beekeeper who she may or may not love from the afternoon of a rainy barbecue to her last day on the planet. The only way the two sets of laws can be reconciled, she reveals, requires that we accept an infinite multitude of universes…one universe for each possibility, for each choice made, by human or nature.
Having put this thought in Marianne’s mouth, and our minds, playwright Nick Payne goes on to demonstrate. Thus Marianne and Roland meet at the barbecue, but Roland is married. They meet again, but Roland is emotionally unavailable. They meet again, and this time they are both available. They go on a date. It ends badly. It ends well, but now Marianne wants him gone. It ends well, and they embrace passionately. And so on.
Balatincz, Patterson and director David Muse take us through the multiverse at a relentless pace. A scene runs to its natural climax and the stage darkens; we hear a hum and the stage lights up in a different universe. The characters run through the same scene, with some slight variation. Sometimes it’s only a word — “inferno” becomes “hothouse” becomes “sauna”. Sometimes it’s only a gesture, or the mood of one of the characters. But it is all the difference in the — universe. We move back and forth in time as we go from one universe to another; we see the consequences of the bad date as well as the story set in the universe where Marianne merges hearts with Roland.
February 10 – March 6, 2016
1501 14th St. NW
Washington, DC 20005
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Tickets: $20 – $45
———————Had Muse staged this on a traditional stage it would have been awfully hard to follow. He doesn’t, though. Instead, set designer Debra Booth has constructed a spherical shell within Studio X; we sit inside that shell, and the actors are in the middle of us. We see the cords on Balatincz’s neck tighten as Marianne struggles with impossible challenges; we see tears roll down Patterson’s cheeks as Roland realizes that the game is up.
I have some quarrels with the concept, but the execution is magnificent, so let’s talk about that first. First, this play requires first-rate actors. Balatincz and Patterson qualify. This play works only if the actors have a multiverse of ways to play a scene; these two actors have that in their toolboxes. Balatincz is particularly good at signaling the way a scene will turn in a particular universe, by gesture or body posture or just the emotions which shadow her face. Secondly, Payne’s dialogue is all to the point; it is never self-conscious except where the characters must be. In a seventy-five minute play which means to give a half dozen versions of the same story, conciseness is essential. Payne gets this. Finally, Muse is all-in with this play, and as a result there is a robust harmony of lighting, sound, and mood which sweetens the story.
But the multiverse is no friend of story. The most powerful strand in Constellations follows Marianne and Roland as lovers who face a soul-shattering challenge. It lowers the stakes, though, if in another universe they pass through existence untroubled, and in yet another they marry other people. In another universe, does Hamlet kill Claudius in the first scene, and in yet another does he marry Ophelia and acquire a herring processing plant? Or here: I am struggling to assess this strange, puzzling, beautiful work. In another universe, am I writing a complete rave? In another, am I savaging it? In a billion others, do I not exist because my parents or grandparents married other people?
Constellations, by Nick Payne. Directed by David Muse. Featuring Lily Balatincz and Tom Patterson. Set design: Debra Booth . Lighting design: Michael Lincoln . Costume design: Brandee Mathies . Sound Design: Ryan Rumery . Dialect Coach: Nancy Krebs . British sign language consultant: Christopher Tester . Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Movement consultant: Nancy Bannon . Stage Manager: Sarah Elizabeth Ford . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.