By Craig Schneider
Congratulations to Zack Flock and Dramashop for debuting another brilliant and entertaining play to a large opening night crowd in Erie this past Saturday. “Constellations” by Nick Payne is a fractured tale of love and relationships as seen through the telescope of string theory, where all possibilities exist simultaneously in many parallel universes. But don’t let a little highbrow physics keep you from enjoying all of the ideas, the humor, warmth, love and our worry of impending suffering and death that this 75-minute play races through. Though living in two separate worlds, Cambridge University cosmologist Marianne (Alexandra Holbrook) meets a beekeeper Roland (JJ Hodges) at a barbecue. Actually, they meet many times in brief “cut” scenes, where Roland may have a wife, or they are not interested in each other. After many scenarios, like you might have seen in the film “Groundhog Day”, the couple seems destined to share their world together.
Some audience members may be initially put off with the repetitive bits of dialogue and non-sequential plot lines. You might think that either this play is brilliant, or it’s a load of rubbish. But like the play hints at, I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer here. But once you get past the “licking your elbow” snippets, you should be playing along with the author. Payne is not just messing with the audience: you go along with him trying to explore what is real and what you think is an illusion. I did a bit of research on the author, and apparently, his father died of heart failure at the same time that Nick Payne received this commission for a new play. So one might speculate that in the author’s grief, he may have wanted to believe that his father was still alive in an alternate universe.
Marianne’s mother may or may not be dying. Marianne says that “Mom is not scared of dying, but scared about being kept alive.” Marianne may also be dying of a brain tumor but comforts Roland by saying “The laws of physics don’t have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. We have all the time we’ve always had. You’ll still have all of our time, there’s not going to be any more or less of it . . . . once I’m gone.” Powerful stuff. When her ability to speak may be gone, the actors repeat a scene using just sign language. And you know what they are signing. Love is eternal when everything else ends.
That I’m talking so much about the play must mean that the Actors and the Director (Zach Flock) have immersed themselves in their onstage world. For a play set near Cambridge, I was pleased to hear two excellent British accents. And they were able to maintain them throughout. Alexandra and JJ knew their lines so well: they were binary stars locked in orbit and not distracted by a child who kept crying out during the first 30 minutes. Even though many of the lines were similar, Zach confirmed that they had the 40+ page script down word for word. With any bit of paraphrasing here, it would have been difficult for the Light Booth to know if the scenes were over or not.
Alexandra gave the best acting performance that I have seen in awhile. It seemed a bit unfair that her character Marianne had most of the good lines. Being a scientist, she was the calculating one about sex and relationships, while JJ’s character Roland was the more trusting. JJ does have a funny little marriage proposal monolog about the Drones, Workers, and the Queen Bee. Many of the scenes were dimly lit, the idea being that what we’re seeing may not be real or may be taking place somewhere else in space. But the downside was that sometimes you couldn’t see the actors faces.
Nevertheless, this is “Must See” Theater. I’m definitely going again. Future performance dates are Friday and Saturday 3/31, 4/1, 4/7 and 4/8 at 8 p.m. Please visit www.dramashop.org or visit Facebook at Dramashop Erie to get your tickets. See you there?