CONSTELLATIONS

By Nick Payne
Directed by Peter Hinton
A Canadian Stage Company Production
At the Bluma Appel Theatre, November 10-27, 2016

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Cara Ricketts (Marianne) and Graham Cuthbertson (Roland) (photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Probably the most fascinating aspect of Nick Payne’s 75-minute two-hander is the manner in which the playwright shows how chance and free will influence our lives. Marianne specializes in quantum cosmology at Cambridge, and Roland is a professional beekeeper who has just come out unhappily of a serious relationship. The two meet at a barbecue party, and this sets in motion (literally in Peter Hinton’s emblematic production) their shifting interactions and relationship. The two move tentatively into romance, overcome versions of fidelity after versions of bitter anger, and face versions of tragedy. In a simple sense, it is a story of girl meeting boy, girl losing boy, girl regaining boy, folded over itself and repeated in a different way. But Payne ensures that his play is not so simple. Although Marianne struggles to articulate her intimate feelings, she does rehearse a rather corny ice-breaker multiple times that first makes for comic awkwardness that morphs into shy charm that melts away. The repetitions of phrase, with varying inflections, mirror Marianne’s driving belief that we could be part of a multiverse in which several different outcomes could exist simultaneously. An intriguing intellectual subject but not so easily dramatized as a romance or even a problem romance because just how many versions of entire stories unfold simultaneously or even successively within 75-minutes? It is similar to the problem that Brian Yorkey’s musical If/Then couldn’t satisfactorily resolve.

All we can get in a compressed state of time are snippets or vignettes, rendering the idea of multiplicity a theatrical illusion, and not very satisfying, at that. The problem is three-fold in a radical way: the first is in the very nature of the writing (as outlined above); the second is in the acting; and the third is in audience involvement. Peter Hinton’s production compounds the second and third aspects of the problem. It has a gleaming set (courtesy of Michael Gianfrancesco’s design and Andrea Lundy’s lighting), spherical but mainly metallic, with a wall of clear plastic set against black, a circle of stage lights suspended overhead and a revolve at the centre of the floor, with a single large white balloon to impart a sense of something buoyant yet accidental. And the two performers (Cara Ricketts and Graham Cuthbertson) literally spin slowly around on the revolve while scenes unfold and a solo cellist (Jane Chan) supplies musical accompaniment or counterpoint with gravitas. As in the Cabaret Hinton misdirected at the Shaw Festival, the set is put ahead of the story, with metaphor taking precedence over human interaction. Consequently, the performers do not easily achieve or retain any palpable sense of intimacy, especially as Hinton’s choreography keeps them at more than arms apart and spinning slowly as separate planets in the director’s idiosyncratic cosmology. Ricketts manages to be shy yet sexy, intellectual yet sensual, while Cuthbertson conveys a bearded earthiness that has its own charm at times. When the play’s subject becomes that of mortality, the dark mood is palpably human, yet Hinton’s direction retards an audience’s engagement by treating the characters like figures on a grid.

The recent Broadway production starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson had a lighter, airier set design, festooned by balloons that gave it a semblance of buoyancy, and director Michael Longhurst even choreographed a dance for the two characters that enhanced the mobility of the romance. But in Hinton’s production, the pair’s “dance” is reduced to their positions on the spinning revolve, without the characters’ hearts moving deeply and affectingly.

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