Constellations – Review by Geary Danihy

What if…you didn’t turn left but turned right, said “Yes,” rather than “No,” walked into that bar rather than walked by, held out your hand instead of turning away? We all play the “What if?” game as memories collide and we contemplate serendipity. Such is the stuff of Nick Payne’s “Constellations,” which recently opened at TheaterWorks up in Hartford, an exercise in contemplating alternative universes that has, at its heart, an old-fashioned love story with Schrodinger’s Cat thrown in for good measure.

What’s with the cat? Well, not to go too much into head-scratching detail, in 1935 Erwin Schrodinger came up with a paradox involving quantum mechanics. Among other things, quantum mechanics suggests that atoms or photons could exist in different states depending on observations. So, what’s with the pussy cat? Well, Schrodinger (to simplify) posited a cat in a metal box. Was the cat dead or alive? One didn’t know until one observed the feline. In other words, you never know. Of course, you could put your ear to the box and wait to hear a “Meow,” but that’s another story.

In any event, Payne’s “Constellations,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, investigates the possibility that the lives of Marianne (Allison Pistorius), a physicist, and Roland (M. Scott McLean), a bee-keeper, could take many different turns depending on, well, serendipity (and what the audience observes). To reinforce this conceit, the stage, designed by Jean Kim, is a circle (the universe?) with the audience surrounding it. A light ring (it’s a “Beam me up” effect) hovers above the stage (as the light changes color so does the lighting beneath the stage), and above it all are stars that twinkle on and off to signify life-altering (or alternative-life) moments. There are two black benches facing each other on the stage – and that’s it. As the 75-minute, one-act evening progresses, we are treated to multiple blackouts that signify we are about to see a “what if?” to what we has just previously seen. Marianne and Roland meet, then meet again, then meet yet again, all with slightly different results (sometimes the differences are slight).

The premise is a bit over-worked, and might have led to a somewhat “Yadda-Yadda” evening save for the skill and talent of the two actors who, with nary a prop, must, as the lights go down and quickly come back up again, morph into slightly different characters and convey nuanced differences in their characters’ relationships. In essence, the actors overcome the script’s banalities and create some memorable moments, not the least of which is, late in the show, when Marianne, diagnosed with a brain tumor, tells Roland all the things she does not want to have happen – then there’s a blackout – and the scene is reenacted, but now Marianne has, due to the tumor, lost the power of speech, so she must convey her wishes to Roland via sign language (kudos to Laurel Whitsett, the sign language coach). It’s a wonderful, extended moment that engages the audience for, as Roland attempts to interpret Marianne’s gestures so, too, does the audience. It’s a bit of dramatic irony, for the audience “gets it” before Roland does.

For all of the flash-bang lighting, compliments of Philip S. Rosenberg, and the premise based on quantum mechanics, this, in the end, is an old-fashioned love story based on the time-honored question of whether or not boy will get girl, complete with a “Love Story” spin that, for all of the flashbacks, flash-forwards and flash-sideways, inevitably tugs at the heartstrings.

So, if you open that metal box is the cat alive or dead? Fortunately, it’s very much alive, for “Constellations” offers its audience a superb treat: the opportunity to see two actors performing in what might be considered a non-stop “Improv” environment. With each blackout you might imagine someone calling out from the audience: “Now do this. Now feel this way. Now act as if you don’t like each other.” Of course, it’s all scripted, but the “Improv” feeling is there, and it often creates mesmerizing moments, no more so than when Pistorius, after a tremendously emotional scene, must quickly wipe away tears to again play the scene with a different tone and attitude.

“Constellations” is interesting and engaging on many levels, not the least of which is how do you position your actors when the audience surrounds them? Ruggiero has answered this question admirably so that no matter if you are seated upstage or down, house left or right, where you are seated doesn’t matter – the emotional impact is there for all to see.

“Constellations” runs through February 18. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

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