Central Square's "Constellations": Illuminating?

Nael Nacer & Marianna Bassham in "Constellations"
(photo: Underground Railway Theater)

Constellations by Nick Payne, premiered in London in 2002, is currently being produced by Underground Railway Theater as part of the Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT, presented at Central Square Theater. It's about one relationship, with infinite possibilities. It's also about free will, love and friendship, honey and quantum physics. It's also about seventy-five minutes.

This work deals with parallel lives and the consequences of choice and randomness. As superbly directed here by Scott Edmiston, this remarkable work features the story (or, rather, stories) of Marianne (Marianna Bassham), a Cambridge University academic, and Roland (Nael Nacer), a beekeeper, who meet at a party and go for a drink. Or not. The play consists of about five scenes, with various permutations repeated multiple times, that illustrate what might have been, if.....

It's not the first such treatment; Woody Allen's movie Melinda and Melinda and the stage musical If/Then both mined this proposition, as did the 1923 novel by H. G. Wells, Men Like Gods, and the more recent film Interstellar. Even poet Robert Frost had his say about a road not taken, but we're not dealing with a binary choice or chance here. This play begins with a discussion by Marianne on the impossibility of licking the tips of one's elbows which may hold the secret to immortality; there are three variations on what then transpires. The script notes that an indented rule indicates a change of universe. It then proceeds to deal with such weighty issues as string theory, relativity and quantum mechanics. Whew. Fortunately, it brings us back to earth with more accessible cosmology, and alternatives that might have been that you sometimes relive in your mind. As Marianne puts it, “every decision you've ever and never made exist in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes”, or multiverses. Their verbal interactions illustrate how communication is, inevitably, imperfect, and how especially words, equally inevitably, fail us. Payne dismisses words as being capable of binding two people together “forever”; time, he posits, is a more effective breaker of hearts than conflicted human beings themselves are. And time is symmetrical. The efficacy of Constellations, a two-hander multiverse, is crucially dependent on the starring actors rewriting their destinies, and Bassham and Nacer illuminate the complexities of their roles. They're exquisitely matched, literate and surprisingly funny. Equally effective in conveying multi-layered worlds are the work of Scenic Designer Susan Zeeman Rogers, Costume Designer Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg, and Sound Designer Dewey Dellay.

Lastly, one might contemplate the three quotations in an epigraph to the script. First is from Steven Weinberg in The Elegant Universe: the “reductionist worldview...(though) chilling and impersonal (is) the way the world works.” Then there is John Gray in The Immortalization Commission: “Science continues to be a channel for magic, the belief that, for the human will, empowered by knowledge, nothing is impossible”. Finally there is Peter Arkins in On Being: “The question of the purpose of the universe is the invention of human minds and has no significance, except for the way that it (illustrates) the psychology of scholarly pursuit and of the pursuing scholars themselves...there is a considerable grandeur in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose.” The playwright does propose that if our purpose is not to choose but to adapt, there can be a happy ending.

Constellations will be illuminating us through October 8th. One of you should surely see it at least once.

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