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A new way to ask “what if”

By A.L. Adams

May 25, 2017

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, but he’s married.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, but he’s not into her.

Marianne tries to chat up Roland, and he’s available, and he’s into her, and their relationship begins. What are the odds?

Nick Payne’s Constellations might be a heartwarming rom-com if it weren’t for the play’s extremely unusual setting—a series of parallel universes that contain potentially-infinite variations of the lovers’ story.

The “multiverse,” as it’s often called, is a trending theory of physics that proposes that the reality we’re living in is basically just one in a stack of non-identical, concurrently unfolding copies of reality, wherein different circumstances play out among the same participants. And musing about the multiverse seems to be hot right now. Science broaches the discussion with The Large Hadron Collider in Cern, created to seek the “god particle”; with Schroedinger’s ill-fated feline; and with Einstein’s theory of relativity. Science fiction (or as some scholars rightfully prefer to call it, “speculative fiction” or spec-fic) uses the theory to buoy its overarching “what-ifs”: What if the world were different than it is? What if the world is different than we think?

A sci-fi state of mind is emphasized—nay, maximized—by the set in this production. A giant raised grid of perfectly-spaced squares (think Tron, The Matrix, or even a honeycomb) curves artfully from backdrop to foreground, from ceiling to floor, waterfalling off the front edge of the stage. A few of its squares function as cubbyholes that offer up props (for instance, pairs of shoes) at appropriate moments, then reabsorb any matter the actors throw into them, like so many scrambled eggs materializing from nowhere in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Sound, too, is a crucial component. Each new scenario is cued by a sort of “whoosh, clank,” as if the cubbyholes of the grid are being invisibly realigned and locked into place, opening and closing pathways so new stimuli can enter the space.

Dana Greene and Silas Weir Mitchell in “Constelations”: many possibilities. Photo: Patrick Weishampel/blankeye

Standing against this epic gridscape symbolizing the universe’s unseen pattern and flow, Marianne and Roland look strikingly small. But gradually, magnetically, they draw us into their sympathies, and hurtle us toward a heartbreaking conclusion that we keep hoping they can somehow—maybe through a glitch in the matrix?—manage to avoid.

Silas Weir Mitchell plays Roland—or rather, many Rolands—with a range of finely-calibrated choices. Repeating the same lines seconds apart, he deftly switches moods to come off as a creep, a curmudgeon, a charmer. His changeling skills make more sense when you consider where you probably last saw him: starring as a werewolf on TV’s Grimm. On that show, Weir Mitchell’s acting consistently deepened and dignified some pretty shaky scripts, so it’s been nice to see him take on stronger writing in this production and a prior PCS play, Three Days of Rain.

In contrast to Weir Mitchell shape-shifting, Dana Green as Marianne maintains a more consistent character throughout her different permutations of circumstance … to a point. Without spoiling, it’s worth noting that her character undergoes a single major change over the course of the story, and that she portrays that journey sensitively and credibly. Both actors affect credible English accents, coached by a pro, Ms. Mary Mac. Weir Mitchell employs more than one variation of the dialect, sounding stereotypically more Cockney whenever his anger flares. Ultimately, it’s not just the novelty of a mind-bending premise that makes this show, which is directed by Chris Coleman, resonate. It’s the humanity of these characters and their predicaments, as brought to us by a skilled and sensitive pair of players.

Marianne has cheated.

No, Roland has cheated.

Marianne wants Roland to go.

No stay.

No go.

Interestingly, there’s a bit of an echo effect between the Armory’s two current shows, Constellations on the Mainstage, and Mary’s Wedding downstairs in the Ellyn Bye. Both are two-person shows, both romances, both with a heavy under-hum of mortality and the arbitrary nature of fate. Each features a monochrome set and minimal props, relying heavily on lighting changes and sound cues to propel and orient the story. The stories differ most starkly in two ways: While Mary’s Wedding is decidedly retro, set during the First World War, Constellations is at least modern, with a futuristic thrust. And where Mary’s Wedding uses dreams and visions as a vehicle to explore speculative “what-ifs,” Constellations processes possibilities through the device of the multiverse…

…which may bring to light an inevitability: with or without complex theories of physics, people will always wonder if certain of their life circumstances could have gone another way. They’ll always wish to relive those moments and re-try. Whether or not you cage it as cosmic, that desire is universal. And therefore, so is this play.


Portland Center Stage’s Constellations continues through June 11 in The Armory. Ticket and schedule information here.

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