Constellations, by Nick Payne. Directed by Gregg Edelman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat; photo: Emma Rothenberg-Ware
"Everything you've ever. . .or never done, exists."
I cannot recall the last time a play made me want to go back to school, change my major to theoretical science and find a different way into the life I already lead. I'd have to say, "it's never happened before." I would be absolutely certain of that fact but still wonder if, when I sleep, I dream of that alternative life that never was, or couldn't have been or might have existed. This is pretty much my mindset after seeing Nick Payne's play "Constellations" currently on stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts starring the husband-and-wife acting team of Graham Rowat and Kate Baldwin, superbly directed by actor Gregg Edelman who is clearly living a different life as a director with a play like this one.
The idea of parallel universes has existed for a very long time, a staple in the world of science fiction. In October 2014 the journal Physical Review X announced that the theory had finally been proven to be so and that there existed a vast number of such universes. The quantum mechanics, dating from the early 1950s (Hugh Everett at Princeton University in 1954 proposed a radical theory about quantum physics) has been updated to show that these ongoing similar experiences have subtle but strong influences on the world in which we see ourselves existing. Professor Howard Wiseman, a physicist at Griffith Univerisy of Brisbane Australia and his colleagues believe that there are "ordinary (non-quantum) parallel worlds which interact in a peculiar and subtle way. . .which is critical to understanding chemical reactions."
It is all too scientific for my current state of mind, in this universe, but perhaps in some other place it is a simple explanation for why I do things the way I do them. In Nick Payne's play two people, Marianne, a woman who deals in quantum mechanics and Roland, a beekeeper, meet, have an affair, separate, reunite, marry, deal with death, deal with illness, deal with ordinary everyday problems in their relationship and they do so simultaneously in parallel universes, living parallel lives that don't always go the same way in every place.
It is a difficult concept. It is, at first, a confusing concept. We witness their meeting which doesn't go so well. Then it doesn't go so well again. Then it goes peculiarly. Then it goes awkwardly. Then it goes into the romantic but fails. Then it goes strange but ends up in connection. And so on and so forth. In each parallel universe the same incident is played out with a set of differences but the outcome is inevitably the same and the couple always moves into a future relationship that often makes little sense.
In the scientific world of Professor Wiseman and associates there is a mixed reaction to the theory and its supposed proofs, but Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) once said, "I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." The theories here indicate that the activities of protons can be charted in quarks, ten second intervals, and that with these timed devices different outcomes of an act can be diverted into these parallel universes so that, for instance, a man about to fire a gun can either fire it or not fire it. With the quantum diversion both outcomes are possible simultaneously setting off different sets of possible reactions so that the action of firing the gun can spawn multiple events to follow. That is what this play deals with - multiple alterations of a single incident.
The initial incident is presented and then presented again with a different result, over and over, and without apology or explanation we are able to witness for ourselves what the parallel universes experience. Payne jumps us through a lengthy period of the relationship between Roland and Marianne and so we see how they exist and connect or disconnect at the same point in their lives in different places. Once the basic theory is verbally introduced, about 11 minutes into the 63 minute play, the confusion of the opening scenes fades away and the bizarre reality spins into place.
If we applaud Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat for nothing else their ability to memorize this play and remember which version of what scene they are playing when deserves a standing ovation. Why they would do this is simple: it's a terrific play. How they can do it is another story. After only one hour of performing this constant near-repetition of moments they must be too dizzy to actually leave the stage standing upright. I imagine they must read the script constantly in their off-hours to keep the order of things straight. Of course, with their characters existing simultaneously in different but parallel universes it may not make so much of a difference if they get the play out in the right order. There are projections in time at times and the confusion those leave with us are eventually cleared up in the progress of the story in other parallel universes. At different times different versions of the same lines have different impacts.
Baldwin is a lovely mess of confused intentions from beginning to end. In whichever world we see first she is dropping the pick-up line that doesn't work on him. As she keeps repeating it the sense of it alters and his reactions are never repeated. Baldwin is so good at interpreting lines that each repetition is not just a repetition it is a new approach, both in physical representation and verbal tone. Throughout the play she does the marvelous, changing Marianne's presentation of the same idea to fit the situation she finds herself in.
Rowat is her equal with a difference. Roland often reacts to Marianne's approach to a subject in exactly the same with exactly the same tone which, for us, is often disconcerting. We see and hear the finessing of lines from her, but from him there is an exactness. But Rowat is not sloughing off his part in the multi-layered relationship. His character is complex, but simple, easier to recognize than hers. When his switches occur they are startling, alarming even, and poignant in the extreme.
As these two move through multiple possibilities of the same relationship we are swallowed, hook, line and sinker as a massive fish takes the fisherman's bait, by the monster of universal exactness. We are the stars in the sky swallowed by the night's darkness. The constellations, so different from one another, become a larger splattered surface in which all constellations become one so that we cannot tell where we are in relation to other bodies. Light is merely a reflection of itself and darkness is what holds us in place, or places.
Graham Rowat and Kate Baldwin; photo: Emma Rotherberg-Ware
On a double-layered disk, designed by Alan Edwards, and under his illusionary lighting, director Gregg Edelman moves his pair of erstwhile lovers through their varietal existences with a combination of graceful gesture and shattering angularity. It seems as though a lot of conversation has taken place among the two actors and their director, for downstage, upstage and other locales on the small Unicorn stage merge slightly yet remain points of isolation where the different stories play out without becoming difficult to follow. We may not always be able to identify which version of the story we are in, but we always feel connected to their pasts and their futures.
Scott Killian's music lends an almost eerie quality to the play which seems fitting. Laurie Churba's simple costumes do define Marianne and Roland well.
This is not a science fiction play. It is not a traditional play. It is, instead, a play that toys with our normal sense of reality and leaves us trying to comprehend a sound, if disputed, theory of our universe, our world, ourselves. Understanding the play is simple: We are all that we are in every way possible from every point of view. And this only takes an hour or so to accomplish so I urge you to experience an hour-long edition of your years-long lives.
Constellationsplays at Berkshire Theatre Group's Unicorn Theater, 6 East Street, Stockbridge, MA through August 27. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go on line at www.berkshiretheatregroup.org.