Review: CONSTELLATIONS at Brown/Trinity MFA

The play is a sparkling production of Nick Payne's twisty multiverse.

By: Mar. 06, 2022
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Review: CONSTELLATIONS at Brown/Trinity MFA

The multiverse is everywhere now, replete with comic-book heroes and supervillain finger snaps, but in 2014, when British playwright Nick Payne wrote "Constellations," it was still pretty edgy. The Brown/Trinity MFA production captures the exciting energy of his vision with two fine performances and highly creative staging.

Marianne is a Cambridge University astrophysicist, and Roland is a beekeeper, and they meet cute at a friend's barbecue. They fall instantly in love. No, Roland is married. No, rather, Roland just came out of a serious relationship. No, now, Marianne is in a relationship. Wait, we've flashed forward and Marianne is having trouble speaking...

As Marianne says about her work examining the indeterminacy of the quantum realm, sometimes there is "no linear explanation." So while on the surface, Payne's play is a love story with -- perhaps -- a tragic ending, it is in reality half-a-dozen love stories, all intercut and branching, following, as Marianne says, "Every choice, every decision you've ever and never made," following these two characters through multiple paths in this tight, 75-minute gem of a script.

The two characters, Marianne (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker), and Roland (Liam MacDougall) are played with charm and energy by these Brown acting MFA students, both class of 22/23.

Whittaker has perhaps the tougher challenge, as many branches of the multiverse find her struggling with a loss of speech induced by a glioblastoma. She vividly portrays deep frustration and fear, and her emulation of the halting speech patterns associated with Broca's aphasia is frighteningly accurate. It is a chilling performance.

MacDougall is a genial counterpoint to Whittaker's intensity, sometimes puzzled, a little overwhelmed by her academic exuberance. He plays a perfect beekeeper to her physicist, with an endearing authenticity and a deep love that shows through, no matter which situation they find themselves in. It is a rich, convincing portrayal.

Directing student Carol Ann Tan (class of 2022) has staged the action cleverly, accompanying every change in "universe" with a brief blackout, a distinctive audio cue, and a rapid movement to a new position by MacDougall and Whittaker. Tan has a very clear vision, and it serves to keep what could become confusing multiple storylines straight. It is highly competent and assured direction, and speaks volumes about both Tan's skill and the quality of the Brown/Trinity training program.

Particularly impressive is Tan's use of the environment. The play is done in the round, and the set and space, designed by Johanna Pan and Patrick Lynch, is a spare, unadorned 15-foot circle on the floor marked off with fragments of tinsel. Tann moves the actors with clear intent, often using location to countersink a point. For example, Marianne always returns to precisely the same spot -- arguably for ironic effect -- when she reaches the line, "I have to have a choice."

Lighting designer Nic Vincent has done a fine job at covering and isolating the action as needed, and the fades and bumps associated with the many switches among branches of the multiverse are fantastically complicated and well executed, as is Elliot Yokum's sound design, which provides the sonic accompaniment as the world shifts.

This is not an easy show to produce; in less competent hands, one could easily lose an audience in its multiple digressions. But here, sure direction and fine performances keep us anchored to the thread of reality that winds through them all: the verity of love, the anguish of loss, and the deeply human challenge of choice.

Brown/Trinity Rep MFA presents Nick Payne's Constellations, directed by Carol Ann Tan. At the Pell Chafee Performance Center at 87 Empire Street, Providence. Performances March 6, 7, 9 at 7:30 pm. Tickets: Student $6 Senior $8 Adult $12, available by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.trinityrep.com/buy-tickets/ and at the box office 201 Washington Street, Providence. Mask and proof of vaccination required.

Photo by Mark Turek



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