Higher physics into rom-com: a review of Constellations at Shadow Theatre

Mat Busby and Lianna Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography 2017

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

You’ve had this feeling, I know you have. You instinctively review your life to date (and maybe throw in your future prospects). And, like the heat-seeker you are, you can’t help thinking of the moments it all could have been different.

Constellations, the intricate and simple two-hander by the brainy English playwright Nick Payne, is built on the sand of those tiny moments when a word, a tone of voice, an inflection on an ordinary word, a minute adjustment of body language, can change the course of human history — yours. Ditto a chance encounter or a casual impulse that didn’t even seem like a bona fide choice at the time.

There’s a rarified science for this, as you’ll discover in Shadow Theatre’s affecting but maddening season opener, directed by Amy DeFelice . But you don’t have to be able wrap your brain around quantum physics — luckily, in my case —  to get the sense of parallel universes in which the love story of Roland and Marianne persists, until they join.

The elegant design by Tessa Stamp is a kind of star chart for the universe, a black box inscribed with abstract parabolas and orbits — and human footsteps. And Chris Wynters’ original soundscape, a beauty, conjures cosmological dimensions, with a kind of human pulse and rhythm to it.

Marianne and Roland are an improbable couple, which speaks, I guess, to a multiverse of colliding particles where randomness becomes inevitability (you can see why I wasn’t a science major). In fact, this field of higher physics is Marianne’s specialty. At a barbecue, she doesn’t meet another physicist, she meets a beekeeper, Roland, who’s either married or not, or has a girlfriend, or an -ex. And they are attracted to each other. Or sort of. Or not.  And start something. Or not.

This romantic comedy starting point, amusingly, unspools differently in a speedy sequence of possible scenes that sometimes end abruptly — the lighting shifts, the music whirs to a standstill — and sometimes seem more open-ended. They have affairs and separate. Or not…. Or meet up later. Or not.

Mat Busby, Liana Shannon in Constellations, Shadow Theatre. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux Photography

The characters are a couple of contrasting nerds. Mat Busby’s Roland is an appealingly shy, slightly tentative, non-verbal type, with a built-in hunch, and an awkward hands-in-pockets stance. The physicist Marianne, played by Liana Shannon, is awkward, too, but in a louder, heartier way, with a lot of cheerful “fucks!” to show she’s not the ivory tower type. She seems to be a lecturer by habit; there’s a slightly studied quality to her delivery, both verbally and physically.

And while she explains to Roland that we’re “just particles … being knocked the fuck around all over the place,” she sometimes resists her own quantum physics theory.  “I have to have a choice,” she says later in Constellations, when choices are getting pretty meagre.

This is where, in a love story, physics has to cede to chemistry. And romantic chemistry isn’t the strong suit of this production in truth; it requires a certain leap of faith in the theoretical, as set forth here. 

The scenes that follow the entertaining volley of opening gambits — and there aren’t many scenes in this 75-minute play — are replayed over and over, with adjustments that start vivid and get smaller and disappear. It’s a sort of funnel effect as the infinite array of choices and possibilities becomes increasingly circumscribed in the face of a big hard inevitable life question/crisis which I must not reveal. And I found the repetitions got, well, repetitive and gradually indistinguishable in the course of the production. You have the impression that Constellations was designed to be, in its own way, hopeful; this production charts its own course into bleak.  

OK, but maybe that’s the human condition, I hear you argue. And you could be right. In any case, it’s an intriguing challenge for theatre, its actors and its audiences to grasp a sense of forward momentum that is founded on both free will and destiny. And there’s an odd elegance to a play, like this one, that launches itself into the cosmos to take that on. And that’s something to think about, even if the production isn’t quite nuanced enough, finally, to avoid the sense of petering out into rom-com sentiment and convention, played out again and again. In the end, chemistry trumps physics every time. 

REVIEW

Constellations

Theatre: Shadow

Written by: Nick Payne

Directed by: Amy DeFelice

Starring: Mat Busby, Liana Shannon

Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.

Running: through Nov. 12

Tickets: 780-434-5564, shadowtheatre.org 

 

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