- Courtesy Of Adam Silverman
- Maren Langdon Spillane and Dominic Spillane
The setting for a love story usually takes viewers somewhere special, preferably with a hint of what-the-hell possibility. In playwright Nick Payne's Constellations, the setting is the universe — specifically, multiple universes that explode our lowly human sense of time.
As it turns out, you can learn a lot about love by seeing two characters connect in a few dozen of their particular infinite possibilities. Open Door Theater's production is made powerful by understatement, and actors Maren Langdon Spillane and Dominic Spillane fill a cerebral construction with vivid emotion.
Director Joanne Greenberg keeps both romance and characters grounded in naturalism, even as the architecture of the play surrounds them with the abstraction of time. The effect is to banish cynicism by emphasizing a ruthless simplicity, digging down to the emotional core of each moment by making it both singular and part of a continuum.
Repeating aspects of pivotal moments with slight variations, Payne strips the story down to the bone and embellishes it with multiple gradations in event or tone. The elements that make up a romance — awkwardness, exhilaration, betrayal, uncertainty, trust, fear — emerge through repetition. The story comes down to the tender persistence of love.
Marianne and Roland meet at a barbecue. They take the first step toward flirting, but Roland courteously lets her know he's already in a relationship. The scene replays several times with changes. Roland is suffering from a breakup; he's already married; they don't click; they do, but... And again and again until that little bit of traction allows them to take the next step.
Payne duplicates just enough small details to turn the focus on the variations, and the actors enrich them by letting each version shine brightly before another equals it in brilliance. Constellations requires masterful acting, and Langdon Spillane and Spillane excel at making instant changes in character and attitude. It's dazzling to watch Roland vary in self-confidence or Marianne deploy or suppress a touch of sarcasm. Yet both characters retain an essential core that the variations never contradict.
As scenes are usually defined, the play contains only six, maybe seven. But in their multiplicity, they cover all the ground that makes up a romance. The vignettes end with a little pop of a sound effect, restarting at random points. As in music, the play is theme and variations.
Roland is a beekeeper, Marianne a cosmologist. She is deeply engaged in her work and can turn the conundrum of reconciling quantum mechanics with relativity into a comprehensible, poetic problem. As Roland gamely tries to keep up, Marianne gives him the essence of string theory. "In the quantum multiverse," she says, "every choice, every decision you've ever and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes."
And that's where the playwright metaphorically takes them. If the construction sounds intellectual, it's actually a method for accessing an emotional realm. The variations can draw the audience to notice what changes and what stays the same, superimposing a memory of prior versions on each new telling. Viewers are invited to make active interpretations of fluid events, but the story is less a puzzle than a meditation.
It's a gripping form of attention for both audience and performers. The play invites viewers to consider fate and time personally, not intellectually. And as the story deepens when Marianne and Roland face a tragedy, that outcome can be seen as one of many. Ultimately, viewers can turn attention inward, pouring their own romantic experiences into the bottomless vessel Payne has constructed.
The play moves to Noble Hall at Vermont College of Fine Arts in September. In last Thursday's show at the Phantom Theater in Waitsfield, the staging played out before a back curtain hung with vertical strings of blue lights, an expression of the story's infinite patterns, evoking a universe of stars. The uncluttered staging needed no more than some black cylinders and rectangles to serve as furniture.
This play shimmers with the concentration of two actors working together to keep each moment fresh and new. Though the movement is naturalistic, the focus is so keen that no gesture is superfluous, and the effect is comparable to dance. Given the simple story elements, the formality of repetition gives the play the structure of a ballet's grand pas de deux.
Langdon Spillane and Spillane are married in real life, and their ease with each other makes a solid foundation for performances that show both the joy and pain of love. They perform as if unobserved, freeing the characters to suffer their private humiliations and make their bravest declarations.
Greenberg and the actors avoid sentimentality or histrionics. This pair of actors never overheats, and in that sense the show stays so subtle that only the text supplies the punch of an ending. The performances are intimate, powerful and direct.
As Roland, Spillane smiles with the adorable, second-guessed urgency of a man falling in love. He shows Roland physically tugged by his feelings into inward, head-down curls or outward stretches toward Marianne. Spillane etches the character's feelings with hesitations that frame his gestures and words, as if he's constantly searching.
Langdon Spillane is a lithe and thoughtful presence who floats with joy on a tide of words. She plays Marianne's intelligence without apology; the character doesn't shrink herself to Roland's level or harbor any contempt for his comparatively mundane mind. She plays the role with quiet fire and a reserve of wit that never suffocates feeling with irony.
At the very beginning of a romance, the possibilities seem endless. So little is known; so much is still to be. What will happen next is a question as powerful as love itself. Constellations isn't about endless outcomes or about characters trying over and over until they get it right. It's about what endures in every variation: love itself.