Review: ‘Constellations’ at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Constellations,’ presented by Thunder River Theatre Company
Where: Lon Winston Theatre, Thunder River Theatre Company, Carbondale
When: Through Sunday, Dec. 17
How much: $15-$30
Theoretical physics and romantic comedy may seem an unlikely pairing for a night at the theater.
But Nick Payne’s brilliant play “Constellations,” as brought to life in an intensely intimate Thunder River Theatre production, pulls it off memorably.
The play opens with Marianne (Nikki Boxer) and Roland (Nyle Kenning) meeting at a mutual friend’s barbecue. Marianne, a cosmologist, is explaining why humans can’t lick their own elbows and Roland, a beekeeper, is amused. After a flash of light and sound, they play the same scene — slightly altered — again. And then again. And again.
Thus over about 70 gripping minutes, “Constellations” explores the idea of a multiverse — where different realities exist simultaneously. From that chance meeting, the play explores the infinite possibilities of where their relationship will go. Based on a butterfly effect of tiny actions, Marianne and Roland may hook up, they may not, they may get married, they may not, may face down tragedy together and may be torn apart by it, they may even live happily ever after.
“Every choice you’ve ever made and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes,” Marianne explains in one version of her life with Roland, during a drunken late-night conversation about string theory.
It’s a heady concept, but this play is all heart. It’s ultimately a boy-meets-girl story about love and forgiveness and the world-shifting significance of even the smallest choices between being kind or cruel.
The underlying problem with this concept is that if everything has happened or could happen, then plot is irrelevant and meaningless. And what is theater without plot? Why, if nothing really matters, should we stick around and watch? But somehow “Constellations” transcends that issue — you can’t help but be riveted by the two characters onstage and their infinite possibilities.
There are maybe only a half-dozen scenes in “Constellations,” but each is replayed several times based on where in the multiverse it’s landing. In one scenario, Marianne and Roland use sign language to communicate, repeating the dialogue from a previous version of the same scene in signs, to emotionally devastating effect.
It’s an extraordinary achievement in acting, and an astounding thing to watch — imagine if you had to memorize six versions of the same scene with slight variations of emotion and body language and intention and then play them all in rapid succession, fully investing yourself in each version of your character. That’s what Boxer and Kenning are doing here, directed by local theater veteran Mike Monroney.
Performed in the round, this production makes excellent use of Thunder River’s black box space — it has an extreme close-up effect. The set is a mostly blank canvas of mounded forms that can stand in for any setting, with fabric draped above and lit up like the cosmos. Small, exposed lights dangle about this blank space, which flash — along a burst of celestial sound — to indicate we’re switching to somewhere else in the multiverse. Sound designer Gabrielle Bailes and technical director Sean Jeffries deserve a tip of the cap for this utterly effective but unobtrusive effect.
“Constellations” runs through Sunday.
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The late Norm Macdonald did stand-up in Aspen from the old days of the HBO Comedy Fest to the 2020 Aspen Laugh Festival.