Manitoba·REVIEW

Nick Payne's hit play Constellations takes bittersweet journey through multiple romantic universes

In some ways, it might be reassuring to imagine a parallel universe where every option you didn't choose in your life is reality. On the other hand, British writer Nick Payne's play Constellations suggests, maybe those different choices wouldn't have made your world a better place.

Challenging script plays with how small decisions change a couple’s relationship across alternate realities

Derek Leenhouts and Mel Marginet star in Theatre by the River's production of Nick Payne's Constellations, which uses the theory of multiple universes to explore various permutations of a couple's relationship. (Giovanni Navarro/Theatre by the River)

In some ways, it might be reassuring to imagine a parallel universe where every option you didn't choose in your life is reality. 

On the other hand, British writer Nick Payne's 2012 play Constellations suggests, maybe those different choices wouldn't have made your world a better place.

Constellations a Broadway hit seeing one of its first Canadian productions here thanks to local indie company Theatre by the River — follows quantum physicist Marianne (Mel Marginet) and beekeeper Roland (Derek Leenhouts) through various permutations of their lives together.

In a series of rapid scenes, we see successful meetings, failed attempts at connection, courtship playful and awkward, outright relationship disintegration, heartbreak and sometimes ecstasy in assorted realities.

Derek Leenhouts and Mel Marginet turn in solid performances, working with a fascinating but challenging script. (Solmund MacPherson/Theatre by the River)
This plays on the idea of quantum multiverses — that for every choice we've made, there's an alternate universe created where the opposite choice became reality. It's weird science, but perhaps the real mind-bender here is how the slightest differences — in what we say, how we say it, how we react to one another — can irrevocably alter our relationships.

A fascinating but challenging script

This is also devilishly hard to pull off onstage. Payne's script is smart, compact (at just 70 minutes) and dense with provocative scientific and philosophical questions.

It calls for actors to repeat scenes and dialogue with the most minute of variations, and to make hairpin turns as the script jumps, often mid-scene, from one reality to another.

What resounds is its bittersweet exploration of how two people navigate the strange and sometimes cruel turns of fate, and of roads not taken.- Joff Schmidt

It's fascinating as a piece of writing, if tremendously challenging — and by and large, director Sarah Constible's production pulls this off admirably.

Played out on a smartly-designed hexagonal set (by Daina Leitold), it perfectly captures a crisp pace in many scenes (though feels like it could tighten up a bit in a few places), and makes variations in scenes slight but distinctive enough to show us how tiny alterations change Marianne's and Roland's reality.

​Marginet and Leenhouts have their work cut out for them in the huge range the script calls for, requiring them to sometimes make great tonal leaps. Here again, they're generally quite successful. There are a few moments where they seem to struggle a bit with the script's quick turns, but both deliver solid performances and navigate through the play's demands impressively.

It's a production perhaps not as uniformly successful as the script, but it does engage. There are big ideas of quantum physics and questions of metaphysics at play in Constellations.

What resounds, though, is its bittersweet exploration of how two people navigate the strange and sometimes cruel turns of fate, and of roads not taken.

Theatre by the River's production of Constellations runs at the University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film until Oct. 9.

About the Author

Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.