BWW Review: Vagabond Players' CONSTELLATIONS Has Its Cake and Eats It Too
We know that unobserved subatomic particles seem to occupy every position possible for them simultaneously; the concept is known as superposition. It has been speculated that superposition may also operate at the macroscopic level we humans inhabit, with all possible events playing out simultaneously, casting ever-dividing versions of ourselves headlong into an ever-multiplying number of parallel universes. Let me hasten to emphasize that superposition is established science, while the simultaneity of all possible histories and lives is total speculation.
Speculation, perhaps, but speculation fraught with dramatic possibility, exploited fully in Nick Payne's play Constellations (London 2011, New York 2014), being given a bang-up revival by Baltimore's Vagabond Players. I knew, when I saw the New York production, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, that it was an actor's show, as I'll explain in a moment. But at that point I had not yet started writing plays myself. Having now undertaken the casting of plots and the crafting of dialogue, I can see how it's a playwright's show too.
What am I saying? Well, consider conventional dramatic plotting; it's built on the making of choices. In most plays, we can only know one outcome per choice a character has made. This has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, much dramatic capital can be raised with regrets and rejoicing over a character's choice, and torment or relief over paths not taken, tempered perhaps with the knowledge that we will forever remain ignorant of what would really have happened. But a drama that tells us what would have happened has all sorts of additional weapons in its arsenal. The moment that It's a Wonderful Life transcends light comic melodrama and becomes an iconic classic is the moment Clarence tells George Bailey: All right, George, you've got your wish: you've never been born, and proceeds to show him exactly what would have happened had George not graced the life of Bedford Falls.
And when, as in Constellations, the characters pass through multiple variations of the same situation, they can play the same moments completely differently, give different readings of the same lines, play out all the emotional and rhetorical possibilities inherent in a situation without regard for the fact that it contradicts the possibilities enacted in other run-throughs of the same scene. And I suppose, for the same reasons, we can call this a director's show. Certainly Michael Byrne Zemarel, the director here, gives his performers the license to range wildly as they perform and re-perform scenes through the full gamut of emotions and affects, and it's apparent they are all having a splendid time. Sometimes the actors chew the scenery, as the phrase goes; sometimes, with much of the identical material, they act with conventional British reserve; it all works.
Playwright Payne's evident intent here was to illustrate the fullest range of things that can happen when Boy Meets Girl. Boy and Girl here are, respectively, a Wiltshire beekeeper named Roland (Christian Smith) and a University of Sussex cosmologist named Marianne (Ryan Gunning). We are plunged right into the multifariousness of possibilities as they first encounter each other at a party. Each version of the encounter starts approximately the same way, with Marianne venturing a pickup line about the impossibility of licking one's elbows. But in the first, he is not available, because he is still sorting himself out after a recently ended relationship. In the second, he is married. In the next universe, other facts are different, but he is again married. Only on the fourth "Groundhog Day" variation do the variables permit them to proceed. And then we follow them in similar fashion through differently realized smorgasbords of first dates, him proposing, her cheating, him cheating, them breaking up, them encountering each other in a post-breakup context, etc.
Yet, sprinkled through the entire structure, out of sequence, and hence situated to draw the audience's attention, are events in which Roland and Marianne are still together, and she is slowly dying of brain cancer, struggling with aphasia, having to give up her work, plagued by memories of her mother's death, contemplating suicide - or, in one version, discovering to her immense relief that her condition will be completely cured.
The play thus neatly illustrates what I've found as a playwright, which is that ordinarily every phrase a character speaks is pregnant with possibility, but equally conclusive of things that have already happened or will happen later in the plot. Every line the playwright chooses changes the whole play. And many of the directions any moment in the script could force you as the writer to go would be interesting and worthwhile. But the overall logic of writing your particular script will ultimately force you, the playwright, to settle for just one. What a boon it would be if you could choose them all! That is effectively what Payne has done here. He has found a way to eat his cake and have it too, and try several different recipes for the cake into the bargain.
Fine: actor's play, playwright's play, cool concept, but what does it all add up to or mean? I'm not sure that's so easy to summarize, but it seems indisputable that Payne is out to wrestle with some Big Questions. What, for instance, are we to make of Marianne's impending death (at least in the versions of the universe where she's dying)? The published script contains an epigraph from philosopher John Gray, which says that we are driven to embrace magical views, whether enshrined in religion or in science, that we can transcend death, but "death is a provocation, because death "marks a boundary beyond which the will cannot go." Maybe so, but - the script itself suggests - maybe not. Marianne herself proposes the contrary, that because of the arbitrariness of time's arrow:
The basic laws of physics don't have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It's symmetrical. We have all the time we've always had. You'll still have all our time.
And this perspective seems reinforced in the play's final moments, when, in a reprise of various events we've seen that seem now to be slightly recombined, we are back at a moment when Marianne and Roland still have time to make choices about whether to have or rekindle a relationship. And it's Marianne who begins the play by playfully suggesting in that pickup line that if we could just lick our elbows, we'd be immortal.
But there's another Big Question behind that. Whether death is meaningless or full of terrible meaning is a subset of the more fearful question whether anything has any meaning. Another epigraph to the script, from Peter Atkins's 2011 book On Being, suggests the universe is fundamentally meaningless, although it endorses the notion of this meaninglessness as possessed of "a considerable grandeur." (If you ask me, the whole concept of grandeur requires a template of meaningfulness for its own meaning, but never mind.) But again the play seems to refute the epigraph. We in the audience cannot help but care whether Marianne survives her brain cancer. And if we care, to us at least it is not meaningless.
The above discussion might give the impression that the play is gloomy and hard work for an audience. If so, I apologize; actually it is filled with laughter, and the mischievous way it has of readjusting everything on the fly will keep the mind pleasantly challenged. Gunning and Smith, both excellent actors, exploit the myriad opportunities to vary their pitches over the same bits of material, clearly enjoying the ranges of ways to deliver identical lines and exchanges, and they draw the audience in. I could have stood a little less talking over each other, very little of which is actually required by the script, but this is a minor criticism. And, even if Roland and Marianne are necessarily not entirely coherent characters, we nonetheless find ourselves being touched by what somehow remains a core of consistent character in each of them.
Constellations, by Nick Payne, directed by Michael Byrne Zemarel, through March 22 at Vagabond Theatre, 806 S. Broadway, Baltimore, MD. Tickets $10-$22 at www.vagabondplayers.org. Adult language, adult topics.
Photo Credit: Bruce F. Press Photography.