Bees have it easy. They may have a short lifespan, but they know exactly what their role is, why they’re here, and what they contribute to the survival of the species.
Humans, not so much.
Do we have any idea why we’re here? Is there actually a reason? Do we have any free will at all, or are we just “particles governed by particular laws,” part of a “multiverse of choices?”
In this view, we’re part of a vast ensemble of parallel universes. At any given moment, and for any choice or decision, there is the potential for infinitely different outcomes.
These are the theories and questions expressed imaginatively, if repetitively, in Nick Payne’s 2012 play, “Constellations” (initially seen in San Diego at The Old Globe in 2016).
We meet Roland and Marianne when they first meet, and watch them play out various interactions, responses and scenarios as they fumble and stumble in and out of a relationship.
He’s a beekeeper; she’s a cosmologist who expounds on theoretical physics.
Sometimes they’re in synch; sometimes not. Sometimes she’s healthy and articulate; sometimes she has word retrieval and communication difficulties due to a terminal brain cancer. One or the other of them is unfaithful. They stay together; they don’t.
Whole conversations are repeated over and over, with slightly (or majorly) different outcomes.
With myriad interactional options available to any of us at any time, it’s impossible to determine what’s “true” or “real,” if such concepts even exist.
That’s the thematic underpinning and structural inventiveness of the piece, but also its weakness. It grows tiresome and ultimately, unresolved. Like Life itself? Maybe, but we crave a little more certitude in the theater.
In the filmed production on the stage of the Coronado Playhouse, director Samuel Young, in an effort to demonstrate the universality of the story, or maybe to reduce the repetition/boredom factor, has chosen to cast four actors instead of just two, as the play was conceived. But this only serves to make things more confusing.
The four performers — Kylie Young and Heather Warren as the two Mariannes; Timothy Benson and Russell Clements as the two Rolands — are all effective and compelling. There isn’t any particular consistency in the mix-and-match pairings, which introduces one more element of randomness and uncertainty, and prohibits us from getting a real sense of the personalities and particularities of the characters.
There’s talk of glioblastoma multiforme, the most common malignant brain tumor, and its effects on language (across modalities, including reading, writing and typing, as well as speaking). For this reason, CPH has chosen the San Diego Brain Tumor Foundation as its charity partner.
But this kind of tumor would also affect the ability to use sign language efficiently, so one scene, played entirely in sign, without translation (though most of the content has already been presented verbatim in speech) becomes a very enigmatic directorial choice. A risky gambit if it’s just about expanding the idea of universality and is not related to the disease.
The production is well produced (filmed by Marc Akiyama and Landon Akiyama), with an especially intriguing lighting design (Mickey Mounarath) at the beginning and end.
The play is chock-full of existential, philosophical, medical and interpersonal questions. It packs a lot into 80 minutes, but no easy answers are on offer (it’s almost all theoretical). So, no answers at all.
Still, if it makes you think about your own options and alternatives (in sickness and in health), or your place in the universe (or in your relationship), it will have served its hypothetical, artistic and informational objectives.
- “Constellations” streams On Demand from the Coronado Playhouse from through May 30
- Running Time: 80 min.
- Tickets ($25 per household) can be purchased at coronadoplayhouse.com
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.