BWW Review: CONSTELLATIONS at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
"Constellations" by British playwright Nick Payne is a tale or rather tales told about a relationship as seen through the distorting filter of string theory. Kansas City Repertory offers a stylish production with an excellent cast of two directed by KC Rep Artistic Director Eric Rosen.
Playwright Payne lost his father to heart disease almost simultaneous with being awarded a commission for a new play by The Royal Court Theatre in the UK. "Constellations"is the fruit of that commission and of Payne's grief.
Having explained the circumstance, the "Constellations" play script has little to do with the late Mr. Payne except as the driving notion. It does have to do with a confusing relationship struck up at a wedding party between a cosmologist and a beekeeper. An idea of Nick Payne's thought process is essential to an understanding of the metaphysical aspects of this fascinating 75 minute, one act play.
A little crib sheet is useful prior to the opening scene. Modern theoretical physics rests on two pillars of genius. One is Albert Einstein's 1905 theory of general relativity. The other is quantum theory arising from Max Planck's 1900 solution to black-body radiation. The difficulty is that the mathematical calculations that support the two ideas run in opposition to each other. Einstein spent most of the rest of his life attempting to reconcile the math and imagine a unifying principle. He failed.
During the mid-1980s, an answer developed to explain the dilemma of the dueling theories. The theory suggested that the number of dimensions were more than the four easily observed. Expansion of possible dimensions to eleven allows the math to work. This solution is called string theory.
String theory suggests more that a single universe. Multiple universes may exist in parallel to each other. Each one is similar, but not identical to each of its fellows. All are free to spin off in their own individual directions at slightly different frequencies on a scale so tiny that the act of measuring them alters their resonance.
I will not pretend to understand what I have attempted to explain. "Constellations" shares tiny snippets of a number of universes and shows how just slight variances in resonance affect the same events over and over.
Our couple, the cosmologist Marianne (Bree Elrod) and Beekeeper Roland (Tuc Watkins), are seen through rotating glimpses into their relationship. Abruptly, the action pauses and resumes just prior to the place we saw it last.
The audience and, I suspect, the actors must feel vertigo. The play seems to lurch forward one small scene at a time, retracing its steps and coming to other conclusions. Marianne and Roland fall into and out of love. Each eventually wanders from faithfulness to the other. One becomes ill. Marianne suffers from aphasia. She dies in one of the universes. She is mute in another. In another, they decide to flee. And so on and on.
Both actors are excellent in a disorienting situation. The trick is to remaIn Focused in multiple universes not necessarily connected to each other. This they accomplish. The action may be a bit obtuse, but the actors keep the audience's attention. The playwright offers up an idea that has been addressed previously (several times), but not necessarily in this way.
The set and production values, as always with KC Rep productions, are first class. A turntable and two chairs along with an exceptional lighting scheme combined and an inventive cubist hanging element moves the action as the show rotates from universe to universe and back.
How does all this relate back to string theory? I suspect that when the playwright imagines an unending multitude of universes, he hopes one may exist where the ending suffered by his father may come out differently. is worth seeing for craft and for thinking about your own take on infinity and on free will. The play is a puzzlement well presented. See what you think.
"Constellations" will continue its run on the Copaken Stage in the H&R Block building in downtown Kansas City through April 2. Tickets are available through the Kansas City Repertory Theatre website or by telephone at 816-235-2700.
Photography courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre.