Your name is Marianne and you meet a man. Or, your name is Roland and you meet a woman. You start dating each other, or you start dating other people. You are at a barbecue and it is not raining and you went to college with the host, or it is raining and you’re not sure whose party it is. In Constellations, a play by Nick Payne, all of these scenarios and many more exist at once. Just Say It Theater presents the play, directed by Lynn Goodwin, at the Adobe Rose Theatre, continuing from Friday, March 16, through April 1.
In the beginning, Constellations seems like a vortex of confusion, with scenes and conversations between Marianne (played by Alexandra Renzo) and Roland (Scott Harrison) repeating with small variations — a word change or a slight difference in context. Roland is a beekeeper, the kind of man who prefers the reality of nature he can see and touch. Marianne is a theoretical physicist with an interest in ideas we cannot see that may or may not control the universe or multiverse — a hypothetical set of possible universes that encompass everything that exists. “I’ve been reading about how words are a very small part of the communication that we do between us as human beings, and the rest is gestures, intonation,” Goodwin said. “Nick Payne’s words are pretty straightforward, but built into them are just these slight shifts, which I think is the point of the play, which is about how many choices we have in life. There’s the question of how many choices we have for one reaction to an action. And if there are all these other choices that still exist, out there in the universe, where are they?”
Constellations might sound like esoteric experimental theater, but dramaturge Dale Dunn said it is not, because she thinks of experimental theater as much less formed than this play. Constellations was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2012; the Manhattan Theatre Club opened the play on Broadway in 2014. “The experiment here is in the way Payne tells the story, in the repetition and how the repetition gets rolling and rolling and rolling, and you suddenly realize how strong we are within ourselves and how the words that we say don’t always make much sense. There is a cumulative effect.” Dunn is the co-artistic director of Just Say It Theater, which she founded with Goodwin in 2014.
“Marianne is incredibly smart in every single version of herself,” Renzo said. “She’s sometimes really witty and funny, and sometimes not so witty and funny. Occasionally she’s very seductive and has a lot of power and is very grounded. Other times she’s swept up in theory and can be stuck in her head.”
“Roland is about what he can see and observe,” Harrison said. “He’s very thoughtful — by which I mean he has a generosity, but he also looks for patterns in relationships and wants to understand why things happen the way they happen. He gets flummoxed when they don’t follow a certain order.”
“He’s microcosm and she’s macrocosm, but they both follow the same paths of discovery in their separate fields,” Goodwin said.
The ethereal nature of the play — which will be performed in the round on a black-box set — disconcerted the actors at first. Harrison is the founder and artistic director of Ironweed Productions. Since 2004 he has produced, directed, and acted in classic American narrative plays by luminaries including Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller. “There is an interesting dynamic when you’re doing a play with a straight story,” he said. “As an actor, you can sometimes feel like you’re not connecting [to the story]. In Constellations, you might feel that, but then you’re on to the next thing. You have all these opportunities to put yourself back in the moment.”
Renzo appeared in the 2016 Adobe Rose production of Bonjour, là, Bonjour, by Michel Tremblay, a play that shares some similarities with Constellations — namely that time and relationships are not fixed. But Renzo does not generally gravitate to nonlinear, nongrounded plays. “I really prefer straightforward dramas that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. In early rehearsals of Constellations, I was throwing temper tantrums, throwing my script on the floor, flailing around, and screaming in frustration — and then it would always end in laughter,” she said. “That’s just the way I am energetically. I have to let it out. But it has been a privilege and an honor to reintroduce myself to a different level of craft. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to sit with a piece in this way, be spontaneous and in the moment, and move from world to world.”
If the structure of Constellations still seems opaque, perhaps consider the awareness of story one has in dreams or in reverie. “We don’t necessarily exist or think linearly. We daydream, we night dream. We think of events that have happened in the past and think, ‘What if I’d done this or that?’ ” Goodwin said. “You create an emotional arc in a dream, but then you can’t quite remember what happened, except for the emotional reality.” Or, to put it another way: “The simultaneous realities that exist in multiverses only occur because certain choices would be made — like a pinball. Another ball hits another cog in the machine and goes off at a slightly different angle. The whole science part is fascinating. I don’t pretend to understand it. The way it’s constructed in the play, you ultimately have a complete story, even though you see so many possible permutations of relationships.”
Theater-goers who wish to delve more deeply into the science and philosophy of multiverse theories are invited to a talk-back with Van Savage, an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, following the March 25 matinee of Constellations. Savage will discuss the impact of these ideas on the events in our lives and describe how Constellations subtly explores the intricate connections between mundane and major events. ◀