Many of us wonder what might have happened had we reacted differently in some intimate situation. Had our significant other spoken more plainly, truthfully, passionately, poignantly or persuasively, would the relationship have taken a turn? Constellations, a 70-minute, two-character play being staged by Theatre Lab NOLA in an annex to the Outlaw Pizza Co., explores permutations in one couple's relationship. Much of the enjoyment in watching this intimate performance derives from audience members projecting their personal experiences onto the fictional events.
On a minimalist stage with a semi-transparent curtain backlit with tiny white lights, Emily Russell and Christopher Ramage replay scenes over and over, repeating, altering and swapping the lines, varying their emotional deliveries and fundamentally changing the conversational outcomes. Watching Constellations can feel a lot like watching auditions when actors are not sure where the story is going.
Marianne (Russell), a geeky university professor, is nervous when meeting Roland (Ramage), a handsome beekeeper. As someone who spends much of her time looking at data on a computer, her thought process is analytical, while he sees the world from the perspective of nature. Nonetheless, they find common ground. At first, Marianne struggles whether to allow the relationship to become physical. Later, she becomes possessive, wondering why Roland does not return a text message. In another sequence, she blithely admits to having an affair with a colleague. Roland asks, "Do I bore you?"
"There's no linear explanation," she responds.
Often, there are no good reasons why we do what we do, particularly to and with people we love, and that is the truth underlying Constellations.
Playwright Nick Payne reportedly was inspired to write the dialogue after seeing The Elegant Universe, a documentary identifying contradictions between two major laws of modern physics: general relativity and quantum mechanics. Relating the two led to string theory, positing additional space-time dimensions. In the play, Marianne says they could be part of a multiverse, where multiple outcomes simultaneously exist and "every possible future exists."
Marianne and Roland's relationship travels back and forth in time with both positive and negative results. Director Tiffany Vollmer notes that Payne intentionally omitted stage and acting directions, so the script's interpretation relies on the performers. They remain faithful; they become estranged. They are supportive; they are dismissive. They're joyful; they're mournful. With previous experience in improvisation, Russell skillfully expresses the sudden mood changes. Her performance is particularly affecting after Marianne is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease that muddles her speech. Ramage appears to be the steadier, more predictable partner.
Simple staging and minor scene changes, in which the actors move furniture on and off stage, allow the focus to remain on the drama's emotional content. Monica McIntyre plucks and bows her cello in short, evocative interludes, chosen and scored by Dana Abbott, ending with a sentimental rendition of the classic "Time After Time" by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne.