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BWW Review: Alley Theatre Designs Elegant Universe For CONSTELLATIONS

BWW Review: Alley Theatre Designs Elegant Universe For CONSTELLATIONS
Elizabeth Bunch and Chris Hutchison
in The Alley Theatre's production of CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne.
CONSTELLATIONS, directed by Leslie Swackhamer,
runs May 3 - June 2, 2019 in the Neuhaus Theatre.
Photo credit: Lynn Lane.

CONSTELLATIONS does triple duty. It is a love story but, for those who gag at the thought of anything resembling a romantic comedy, it is more than a romance. It is a metaphysical play, a treatise on love and loss, and an investigation of the fundamental nature of reality and existence. And until June 2, 2019, it's playing on The Alley Theatre's Neuhaus stage.

An epigraph precedes the six add paragraphs that comprise the acknowledgements in Nick Payne's CONSTELLATIONS:

"For Minna

Dedicated to Dad"

Because, in part, the semi-autobiographical play is a hagiography for Payne's father who died of a heart condition. Medical science provided Payne and his father with false hope in the form of a life-prolonging operation. The surgery failed. Payne's father died shortly after.

Seeking comfort, he happened upon physicist Brian Greene's Emmy Award-winning three-part TV series for PBS. Here he discovered what Greene calls the "elegant universe": Spacetime fabric, strings and membranes, parallel universes, extra dimensions, and the Quantum Multiverse.

The multiverse was a godsend to Payne.

"... There's no reason to be disappointed with one particular outcome or another," Greene says in the special. "Because quantum mechanics suggests that each of the possibilities may actually happen. They just happen to happen in universes that are parallel to ours. Universes that seem as real to their inhabitants as our universe seems to us."

Payne says he spent months struggling with the finality of his father's death. Well, there's no definiteness in quantum mechanics. Just possibilities. Physicists find proof of extra dimensions in the absence of the graviton. Absence isn't final. In fact, it is evidence that his father has moved on to another dimension.

In CONSTELLATIONS, Marianne, a cosmologist, and Roland, a beekeeper, live out these theories over the course of their relationship.

Despite the labyrinthine theories at the heart of CONSTELLATIONS, Nick Payne has written an engaging play. It is not, as we say, "challenging," a word often used as a euphemism for "hard to watch." It's funny and sweet and sad and intense. You can't look away.

The script's success has as much to do with the production team itself as it has to do with Payne's clever writing. Director Leslie Swackhamer takes full advantage of the 360-degree view provided by Neuhaus Theatre's Arena Stage. In her theatrical universe, Marianne and Roland are two astronomical bodies constantly revolving at great velocity. But her production extends beyond cosmic metaphor.

Scenic and lighting designer Kevin Rigdon's set, a raised circular platform, shows a road beyond Robert Frost's wildest dreams, a circular path that contains a multiplicity of divergences in a play that, after all, explores the difference of every road traveled by. And his lighting, while instrumental, is unobtrusive.

Marianne, like Chaka Khan, is every woman and Roland is every man. Costume designer Kim Cook reinforces this interpretation, using the universal signifiers of femininity and masculinity, pink and blue, for the single costumes. And not coincidentally, pink stands only behind red as the international color of romantic love. Cook's choice in hue is similarly instructive. She adopts nursery shades, creating a color scheme that affects you subconsciously.

Experiencing the production is like experiencing a lucid dream: your mind supplies you with surroundings concrete enough to populate a rich imaginary world and abstract enough to prevent you from getting bogged down in details.

Also keeping this waking dream on track, in addition to Swackhamer and the design team, are actors Elizabeth Bunch (Marianne) and Chris Hutchison (Roland). Bunch and Hutchison bolster the production design, which is primarily based on abstract relationships, by making it easy to mentally fill in the details. They've created the detailed imaginary circumstances necessary to give detailed, compelling performances. Because they did the work, the audience doesn't have to.

And it is a lot of work. Though CONSTELLATIONS is a two-hander, there are well over two characters. With at least six parallel universes, each with its own version of Marianne and Roland, both actors have at least six characters to play.

There's also great chemistry between the two actors, who serve as the gravitational pull of the production. This helps when the same events occur over and over again in rapid succession, "Groundhog Day"-style. Take after take, Bunch and Hutchison keep it interesting.

Pierre Dupree's sound design shines most in the final moments of the play where he, literally, gets out, if not the violin, some sort of stringed instrument. But it is, of course, a more intelligent choice than meets the eye. It is not only incredibly effective, but also a perfect bookend to a play so heavily inspired by string theory.

And when all is said and the day is done, theater is like string theory and quantum mechanics. The mathematical formulations that undergird string theory and quantum mechanics are relatively rudiment expressions of a complex entity that cannot, possibly ever, be completely defined or represented.

CONSTELLATIONS. May 3 - June 2, 2019. Alley Theatre, Neuhaus Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For information, please call 713-220-5700 or visit Run Time: Approx 75 minutes with no intermission. Suitable for ages 13 and up.

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