Bree Elrod and Tuc Watkins in CONSTELLATIONS. Photo by Ken Howard.
Review: CONSTELLATIONS at Kansas City Repertory Theatre
By Marie Warner
Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s CONSTELLATIONS is a smart, complex, play which explores the ideas of free will, determinism, and the multiverse. It also manages to be funny, relatable and heartbreaking.
Nick Payne’s play concerns the trajectory of the relationship between Marianne and Roland — an astrophysicist and a beekeeper, respectively. That’s a fairly typical topic for a play, but that is the only typical thing about CONSTELLATIONS. The play unfolds as a series of non-linear scenes between Roland and Marianne. Most of the scenes are repeated multiple times with small or extreme changes, which not only bring new meaning to the same or similar text but drastically alter the course of Roland and Marianne’s lives.
As an astrophysicist, Marianne is concerned with the concept of string theory and the quantum multiverse, or the idea that there could be countless versions of ourselves existing simultaneously in innumerable variations. As a beekeeper, Roland sometimes craves the simplicity of a predetermined path. The structure of the play and the repeated scenes flesh out the multiverse idea. If Roland were hung up on an ex, if Marianne made a lame joke, if their relationship to the host were different, would Roland and Marianne hit it off at that barbecue? Would they fall in love? Would Roland go home at the end of the night or would he stay? All these choices and factors create infinite possibilities.
Bree Elrod and Tuc Watkins are powerful as Marianne and Roland. Both are onstage and engaged for the entirety of the play. In addition to the emotional demands, these roles are incredibly challenging from a strictly technical perspective. Memorizing the same scene ten different ways and then keeping track of the order of all those variations is a unique test for an actor’s memory. The structure of the play and lack of intermission also mean that there is no chance for the actors to adjust or regroup offstage.
Elrod gives a deeply human performance. She has a great physicality while beautifully expressing the strength and vulnerability of Marianne. Particularly in scenes addressing Marianne’s mortality, Elrod is breathtaking.
Due to its unusual structure, CONSTELLATIONS could easily become frenetic and confusing. Watkins lends a sense of balance to the production. Elrod’s Marianne goes through the most drastic changes, yet Watkins is able to adeptly adjust and complement her throughout.
Eric Rosen’s wonderful direction rightly keeps the staging as simple as possible. With a run time of about 75 minutes, the pace is brisk and the changes in repeated scenes are often subtle — you will want to pay attention.
Jason Sherwood’s set is gorgeous — a towering metal helix made of bookshelves with Edison style lamp lighting throughout, and a turntable floor. The framework of the set serves to create the insular world of Marianne and Roland. It gives the audience permission not to consider anything else going on outside of that circle. This creates a strange but somehow fitting contrast between the infinite possibilities and universes in which these characters exist, and the intimate moments we witness.
A play about an astrophysicist and a beekeeper and their place in the multiverse may not seem very relatable to most people. But at its heart, CONSTELLATIONS is about the choices we make and how those may reverberate throughout our lives, and indeed, throughout the universe. It is both weirdly comforting and heartrending to contemplate the alternative lives we may lead. CONSTELLATIONS is a phenomenal, profoundly affecting evening of theater which will stay with you long after the curtain falls.