By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.
— Marianne in Constellations
In the mind-bending love story that launches the Shadow Theatre season Thursday, a quantum cosmologist and a beekeeper meet by chance at a barbecue. And in the course of Constellations, the same scenes of their relationship play themselves out again and again in parallel universes — with a word or two changed, or an an inflection, or a tiny fragment of information withheld or revealed. Endless possibilities, very different arcs.
You know that feeling that there must have been a moment when everything could have turned out very different? In the great multiverse of “could-have-been” alternatives (including the one where I didn’t pre-emptively drop out of high school physics to avoid flunkage) here’s one I didn’t see coming.
An actor sees a show in London that she “absolutely loves.” She returns to Canada, has coffee with a favourite director, and says “I saw this great play!” Whereupon the director says, unprompted, “Is it Constellations?” Which brings us — through either a demonstration of ‘ quantum entanglement’ or a cluster of odds-against possibilities — to the Shadow production of the 2011 two-hander by the young English playwright Nick Payne. The play, which has attracted admiration on both sides of the Atlantic, is directed by Amy DeFelice; it stars Liana Shannon, the actor who’d gone to London (and chosen to see Constellations instead of any number of other shows), and Mat Busby, the actor who didn’t.
And now, weeks into rehearsal, there’s this: I’m in the Varscona Theatre in the morning (improbable enough, in truth) with two actors. And Shannon and Busby are talking about quantum physics and free will vs. destiny (more improbable still) instead of, you know, motivation and sight lines. And, as it turns out, the smart, genial stage manager Chris Nelson happens to be a physics buff, with things to say about the intersection of higher physics and the arc of the love story.
Enter the set and lighting designer, Tessa Stamp, in her painting duds. She says, cheerfully, “I was going to be a physicist before I found theatre…. I carried around Roger Penrose’s The Emperor’s New Mind (I looked it up: a seminal volume by a star English mathematical physicist) in my backpack all the time. I thought about string theory, algorithms, cosmology….”
She’s happy to shed light on the exotic idea of ‘quantum entanglement’ (and how it might be joined to romantic entanglement in a play). “It’s the science behind teleportation,” Stamp she explains, quoting Heisenberg, of the “uncertainty principle” fame. “It sort of feels like the physics of the soul…. By the time you finish trying to prove the soul doesn’t exist, the quantum mechanics of it will prove that it does….”
“That’s romantic,” says Shannon, appreciatively. I’m wishing I’d had a science teacher like Stamp in school. Things might have turned out very differently.
She, Busby, and Stamp talk about the way relativity and quantum mechanics are “opposite answers” to the big questions. They muse on the conflicting behaviour of matter and particles vis-a-vis principles like gravity. “We experience time sequentially,” says Busby. “But at a molecular level…. well, all our decisions we will make and never make happen at the same time; that’s what the play says.” He grins. “That’s one of the great things about acting; you learn about so many things.”
As you will glean, it’s an unusual conjunction of talents — free will? fate? — at work on Constellations, itself an unusual conjunction of quantum physics and love story. “At heart it’s a fairly straightforward love story,” says Busby. “The trajectory of the relationship in different universes depend on what (the two people) are bringing at a certain point in time. One’s in a relationship, one’s single. Or the other one’s single. Or both are single. Or both aren’t…. Sometimes the changes are very small. A conversation ends; do Marianne or Roland have the bravery to take the extra step?”
“Very human,” says Shannon. “So much depends on timing, and the timing changes in each universe. What if I’d taken this road instead of that? We’ve all thought about it. In this play we see it played out. Sequentially.”
In a parallel universe Busby and his actor wife Jenna Dykes-Busby, for example, might not have an adorable 16-month-old baby named Violet who’s busy acquiring molars. They might never have met. And Busby might not have spent the summer working at the Varscona (he’s an artistic associate at Teatro La Quindicina), appearing in Andrea House’s Chasing Willie Nelson at the Fringe, and getting virtually no sleep.
The idea of infinite possibilities played out makes Constellations a rather daunting script to read, as Busby agrees. When you do one scene over and over again, with minute changes, a word can make a big difference. “The big fear,” he laughs, “is that we leap ahead and the play ends way too soon. Or we’re stuck in the same loop, and we’re all here for a year.”
“I was daunted by how precise it is,” says Shannon, who appears frequently with DeFelice’s Trunk Theatre. When she teaches adult theatre and film classes at the Citadel school, she often uses the analogy of jazz and improv. “But this is really more like classical music…. And it’s beautiful.”
Roland and Marianne may separate or not, their romance may sputter or not, but the connection mysteriously seems to remain, says the actors of the love story. “It’s a human tendency to ask ‘why?’ questions,” grins Shannon. “I’m a free will person. But there are those destiny moments….”
Busby laughs. You like to think to think it doesn’t really matter if you order a cappuccino or a latte, but maybe…. Anyhow, it reminds you to be attentive, mindful.”
Written by: Nick Payne
Directed by: Amy DeFelice
Starring: Liana Shannon, Mat Busby
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: through Nov. 12
Tickets: shadowtheatre.org, 780-434-5564