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Theater Review: Exploring a Cosmic Idea at Shaker Bridge

  • Amy Hutchins, as Marianne, and Michael Stewart Allen, as Roland, rehearse a scene from "Constellations," a two-character drama by Nick Payne at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, N.H., on Jan. 16, 2018. The play runs from Jan. 18 through Feb. 4. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Actors Michael Stewart Allen and Amy Hutchins, both of New York City, rehearse a scene from "Constellations," a two-character drama by Nick Payne at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield, N.H., on Jan. 16, 2018. The married couple have been in plays together before but this is the first time they are the only characters in the play. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Thursday, January 25, 2018

An astrophysicist and a beekeeper walk into a barbecue. It sounds like the set up of a bad joke, or at least a lighthearted play. This suspicion seems confirmed when the flirtatious scientist dissolves into giggles as she attempts to demonstrate a person’s inability to lick her own elbows.

But then something strange happens: The scene abruptly cuts out, reset by a momentary blackout, and then replays. The same characters, the same scenario, but different. We see Marianne and Roland’s initial meeting several times. This time the beekeeper tries to lick his elbow as well, that time the woman is less awkward, this time the man mentions a wife. The scene replays over and over until it unfolds in just the right way, the two characters click, and we are assured that this relationship will be more substantial than the thousands of fleeting interactions that we have with strangers throughout our lives.

This opening sequence plunges us directly into the central concept of Nick Payne’s Constellations, a play that is interested in ideas both great and small, in equal measure. The tagline of Shaker Bridge Theatre is “Powerful. Intimate. Contemporary,” and artistic director Bill Coons could not have picked a play better suited to those ideals. Shaker Bridge’s production continues through Feb. 4 at Enfield’s Whitney Hall.

Payne is a young British writer who likes to grapple with big ideas and has a gift for bringing them down to a human level. His first play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (2009), grabbed the attention of London audiences and critics with its portrayal of troubled family dynamics with a backdrop of climate change. Constellations cemented his status as a rising star when it premiered in 2012 and was then produced on Broadway, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson.

The play was inspired by a documentary that Payne watched about string theory — the quantum physics concept that proposes the existence of multiple simultaneous universes. We soon learn that Marianne is a “theoretical early-universe cosmologist,” but don’t let that scare you. All we need to grasp is the tantalizing idea that while we experience only one version of our lives, somewhere out there many more possibilities exist. As Marianne explains: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” Roland, for his part, is less theoretically minded. “This is genuinely turning me on,” he replies.

The concept of the multiverse isn’t just subject matter for the play. In fact, the story that unfolds isn’t about physics at all. Rather, Payne ingeniously uses the idea to undergird the structure of his romance. Scenes rewind and replay in nonlinear fashion, keeping the audience attentive as we try to parse out the future from the past and reality from possibility. Sometimes this task is easy, such as when Marianne must have agreed to go on a date with Roland, we figure, or else they couldn’t progress to later stages of their relationship. Other times it is more open-ended. Did he cheat? Did she? Does it matter?

Eventually, the jumble of scenes falls into place and we are able to see a through-line for these often-charming characters and their charged circumstances. The deft actors, Amy Hutchins and Michael Stewart Allen, bring a palpable humanity to the roles that is aided by the intimacy of Whitney Hall and its in-the-round arrangement. The actors rarely seem more than 10 feet away from any audience member, making it easy to empathize and feel as if we know them. Their appeal and believability may be bolstered by a secret chemistry: The actors are married in real life.

Coons’ direction brings a natural and organic feel to the frequent scene replays. His empty stage is a study in simplicity, keeping all eyes on Hutchins and Allen as they tumble and twist into new configurations during the momentary blackouts, recalling a choreographed gymnastics floor routine as they shift to new corners of the playing space for each new iteration.

We are accustomed to accessing plays through their characters, and the story that unfolds here is moving. But that isn’t what makes this play so remarkable. While most modern dramas rely on emotion and identification to engage the audience (especially two-handers about relationships), this is the rare contemporary work that asks you to think about structure and dramaturgy, or how a play is made. While we are positively inclined toward the characters and want to root for them, we never really get to know them since there are so many different versions of their actions. As a result, watching the play offers a different experience of theatergoing, more cerebral than emotional.

The downside to this is that the repetition can at times make it feel like watching an acting exercise. However, the actors are so skilled that these moments carry their own interest, and offer the pleasure that one finds in watching a virtuoso. At times I wanted a more elaborate visual conceit to reinforce the heady intellectual frame, but the bare stage offers an intimacy and a focus on the actors that is a reasonable trade-off. While the ending is rather abrupt, it is hard to overstate the wallop packed into this tight show, which is barely more than an hour long.

I left wondering, like Robert Frost’s traveler, about the road not taken. Can we tread many paths simultaneously somewhere out there in the multiverse? The idea is intriguing. And even if our lives must unfold in linear fashion, our art needn’t.

Constellationscontinues at Shaker Bridge Theatre in Enfield through Feb. 4. For tickets and information go to shakerbridgetheatre.org or call 603-448-3750.

Samantha Lazar is a doctoral candidate in dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at the Yale School of Drama. She lives in Lebanon.