Arts theater review

Everything you’ve ever, and never, done

‘Constellations’ at the Central Square Theatre explores the nature of time, the multiverse, and love

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Nael Nacer & Marianna Bassham in 'Constellations.'
Courtesy of A.R. Sinclair Photography


Written by Nick Payne

Directed by Scott Edmiston

Sept. 7 – Oct. 8, 2017

Central Square Theatre

In The Conduct of Life, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “The secret of the world is the tie between person and event. Person makes event and event person.” We define the moment and, reciprocally, the moment defines us. Constellations explores the infinite possibility that inhabits such a moment. Roland and Marianne meet at a barbeque and fall in love. Roland and Marianne meet a barbeque and her opening line about licking elbows just doesn’t have that same flirtatious ring. Roland and Marianne meet a barbeque, and after two minutes of the exact same conversation as in the previous scenario, never speak to each other again. The only difference? A matter of timing—one of them is already married. In Constellations, there is not a question of which one actually happens. They all happen, just in different universes.

Roland is a beekeeper and Marianne is a cosmologist — an interesting juxtaposition, presenting two different views of the world. Roland admires the “quiet elegance” and purpose with which the bees live. Marianne assures Roland that we are nothing but a collection of atoms. Time is irrelevant, purpose absurd. In such an unstructured piece, the beautifully programmed background lights and sound serve as an anchor for the audience and transitions between scenes.

Nael Nacer (Roland) and Marianna Bassham (Marianne) are actors of prodigious versatility. No two scenes are contiguous chronologically, emotionally, or psychologically — they cannot fall into a comfortable rhythm of character and tics, because the person hurling insults now is not the same person who was sobbing piteously in the previous scene. They are acrobats of tone and body language. Because the audience is watching them act out the different turns a particular scene can take, we are hyper-aware of the details. We’re still trying to piece together the story, to discern a pattern, so when Marianne steps back several steps during the conversation, we notice, because she did not do that in the last sequence. This imbues every action with more meaning than it would have in a typical, non-multiverse play.

As would be expected of a play that tackles the meaning of time and the possibility of a multiverse, this is not a story that starts at the beginning and comes to a happy or sad end. That kind of convention is a literary byproduct of deterministic living. The play presents a sort of puzzle: are there scenes that pair with each other? Is this barbeque sequence a direct predecessor of this ballroom scene? What is undeniable is that each sequence of events results in a different Marianne and a different Roland. Just as you will be a slightly different you for having seen this play. I did not expect to grow so attached to Roland and Marianne. Initially, the repetitiousness of the vignettes is a bit jarring, and I wonder to myself how many times I can listen to Marianne asking Roland if he can lick his elbow, but in the end, their last (first?) dance together brings tears to my eyes.