WRITTEN BY: Nick Payne
DIRECTED BY: Peter Hinton
ACTORS: Graham Cuthbertson and Cara Ricketts
COMPANY: Centaur Theatre Company in co-production with Canadian Stage (Toronto)
VENUE: Centaur Theatre
Love and death aren’t new themes in the theatre by any count, but Constellations sets them in a unique landscape: string theory.
Constellations explores the idea that our lives are a series of choices, and consequently possibilities. It centers on Marianne, a theoretical cosmologist, and Roland, a beekeeper, placing them in a variety of parallel universes. The audience watches as the couple meets, falls in love, moves in together, is torn apart by affairs and disease, or lives happily married. The story is funny at times and heartbreaking at others, all while raising important reflections about time, mortality and free will.
Nick Payne wrote Constellations in the wake of his father’s death. Evidence of his struggle to cope with losing a loved one is obvious throughout the narrative and in light of this event, it’s easy to understand how the idea of parallel universes takes on new meaning. Payne has described the idea of a universe in which his father is still alive as “curiously unhelpful and quietly consoling.” This sums up much of what he is getting at with his play: the absence of free will is as frightening as it is freeing.
Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) delivered an excellent performance in the Centaur Theatre’s fall 2016 production of the play. They were spot-on in their portrayal of characters who both change and stay the same from universe to universe. The roles required subtle use of intonation and expression to keep the characters consistent as they experience vastly different outcomes of a same situation. Ricketts and Cuthbertson did a great job at this, and the chemistry between the characters—essential as the play centers entirely around their interactions with each other—was convincing.
A play like Constellations comes with the risk of the audience finding the story difficult to follow. Many scenes are played out nearly identically, with only slight variations in wording or inflection. This production managed to clearly differentiate between the various universes with clever lighting and sound design. Cellist Jane Chan provided the music, tucked inconspicuously in a corner on stage. The selected pieces contributed to the emotions in each scene without being overly-present and distracting.
The set itself, while extremely minimalistic in design, served to add movement to scenes. It was comprised of a simple raised circular platform in the center of the stage, with an outer ring that could rotate at various speeds. The actors moved around the stage in a variety of configurations; sometimes one standing in the centre of the platform while the other orbited around them, sometimes both immobile in the centre, and sometimes both spinning. While subtle, these movements added nuances to the scenes. At one time, the set was even used to illustrate the physics theory Marianne was trying to explain.
There was one thing that stuck me as a bit odd. One of the actors, right before the play started, walked onto the stage to chat with the cellist. The two whispered for a moment, laughed and he walked off again, the theatre lights dimming as the show started. While it may seem small, I wasn’t the only one who noticed or thought it strange—I overheard patrons around me making whispered comments. While not all that important, the opening lines of the play did lose some of their impact as a result.
All in all, I thought the production was well executed. The narrative of Constellations comments on the huge potential behind the tiniest detail, and this production of it truly took this to heart. While the choices that go into every aspect of a production— lighting, costume or music—may seem insignificant if looked at separately, together they either coalesce into a cogent piece, or clash and cause it to fall apart. In this case, the small details came together to leave a big impact.
Amanda is an aspiring content creator currently trying to navigate the world of blogging. When she isn’t busy tripping over her own feet, she can usually be found with either her ukulele or her phone in hand. An avid reader and a dedicated friend, her writing reflects her many passions.