In Play Reviews

It’s a different sort of romance. It’s a different set of circumstances. It’s Nick Payne’s 2012 play Constellations, exactingly directed by Chris Coleman, now at Portland Center Stage.

When Marianne (Dana Green) and Roland (Silas Weir Mitchell) first meet in four or five varied scenarios, each meeting results in a slightly different outcome. It is here both they and we experience the multiverse, where each series of encounters–if you’re into theoretical early universe cosmology and quantum physics, as is Marianne–consists of a different me and a different you. This theme continues throughout a play that is intense, nerdy in a good way, and offers a unique, complex, and thoroughly engaging theatrical experience.

Who are we this time? Roland and Marianne work on finding out in Nick Payne’s Constellations now playing at Portland Center Stage. Photo by Patrick Weishempel/blankeye tv.

The lovers are (she) a Cambridge University researcher and (he) a beekeeper. Her area of research is precisely the thing we experience during the play. During the many stages of Marianne and Roland’s relationship–the first meeting, courtship and love, breaking up (or did they?), and what happens after–the scenes repeat themselves several times. Think of it as the Universe saying, “Whoops, let’s try that one again!”, and then doing so.

Are we in Multiverse Level I, Level II, Level III, or Level IV, which, in the words of Cosmologist Max Tegmark “opens up the full realm of possibility.

“Universes can differ, not just in location…” Tegmark continues. All very interesting, but you don’t need to know this stuff to enjoy the play. It is sufficient to know that the theories are there,  that this may exist in the world of quantum physics, and that it partially explains what is happening on stage, and in life for that matter.

The story grips us. No matter which version we choose to believe, some very real life issues are playing out in front of us. Constellations succeeds as a very intimate, sometimes hilarious, and often tender, play. Kudos to Green, Mitchell, and director Coleman for bringing so much to this production!

Constellations’ mesmerizing set (Jason Sherwood and crew) is another major accomplishment–a huge wave of conjoined white boxes representing uncertainty, infinity, the cosmos, the void. It speaks to and of the play’ great themes, and in that context takes on a life of its own.

Interestingly, another Brit, mystery author Kate Atkinson, released her book Life After Life about the same time Constellations opened on the British stage. During the course of the novel (1910 through World War II), the book’s heroine, Ursula Todd, lives and dies again and again, with each life taking a different trajectory. (One has to wonder if Payne and Atkinson know each other. If so, I’d love to sit in on one of their coffee dates!)

Constellations runs on the Main Stage at the Armory through June 11. Suitable for older teens and up, physicists and beekeepers.


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  • Rebecca Macy says:

    This is one of the most fascinating theater experiences I’ve had. I’ve been thinking about in my quiet moments ever since.

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