Constellations – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

“Constellations” Could Shine More Brightly at TheaterWorks

Rob Ruggiero, one of Connecticut’s most imaginative and sensitive directors, has made a few unusual missteps in his directing of Nick Payne’s two-person love story, “Constellations,” running through February 22nd at TheaterWorks. The production’s design elements are unusual and superb, but one wishes that Ruggiero could go back in time and revise the tone and the casting. Payne suggests that he can, or could.

One of the lovers, Marianne, is a theoretical physicist who is studying the concept of parallel universes. Early on, she explains her work, and her fascination with it, to the man she has met (Roland, a beekeeper), by saying, “[E]very choice, every decision you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.” The script gives theatrical shape to this notion by having Marianne and Roland play out moments of their relationship multiple times, each new iteration showing a shift in language, emotion, or completely different outcome. This structure is thought provoking (for haven’t we all wondered what might have been?), but ultimately a love story depends upon how much we care about the characters, and this is especially true when the story itself could easily get lost in the mode of telling.

Here is where Ruggiero has come too close to turning Payne’s script into a romantic comedy—which it decidedly is not. If we listen at all carefully to the words, we understand that Marianne spends a great deal of her time alone with a computer, pondering, quite literally, questions of cosmic proportions. She is intense, socially awkward, vulnerable, and fragile, and she has recently suffered a terrible loss. These qualities are crucial to her arc. Allison Pistorius’s Marianne, by contrast, is strong, often sarcastic, and self-confident, displaying hurt or uncertainty only when an extreme situation warrants it, and never as part of her fundamental temperament.

M. Scott McLean, as Roland, fares a bit better because he is, in a sense, Marianne’s foil. As a beekeeper, Roland is a man of nature’s habits, rather than a creature of theory and paradox. McLean captures his charm and humor, and he is also poignant when Roland is helpless in the face of possible tragedy. However, McLean, too, should have been directed towards more intensity in quite a few instances; Roland needs to hold his own against Marianne’s more obviously dramatic story.

In a puzzling move, Ruggiero has also chosen to limit the sensuous, sexual nature of this relationship. The lovers rarely touch, and even more rarely kiss, and only once is their physicality lingering or erotic. Since the action does have a linear element, over-arching the micro-scenes, we expect to see, at the very least, the early stages of heated passion.

The most successfully dramatic elements of this production are the staging, lighting, and sound. Ruggiero and brilliant designer Jean Kim have transformed the thrust stage into a circle, with the audience seated in the round—a lovely idea, given Payne’s, and Marianne’s, focus on the universe. Lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg has hung a luminous, glowing ring above the black playing space, and “stars” create the semblance of an infinite night sky. Michal Miceli’s sound works in tandem with flickering lights to punctuate each variation in the action, and Billy Bivona’s haunting, bittersweet music, which he performs from a platform in the audience, creates the emotional atmosphere that one wishes the director had created on the stage.

Physics has its vast fascinations, and Payne’s script opens our eyes to these. But onstage, if a love story lacks chemistry, no amount of verbal or technical brilliance will involve our emotions as fully as “Constellations”—in another universe—could do.

“Constellations” has already been extended at TheaterWorks through February 22, 2018. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworkshartford.org.

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