Review: CONSTELLATIONS at Brown/Trinity MFA

The multiverse is everywhere now, filled with comic book heroes and finger snapping supervillains, but in 2014, when British playwright Nick Payne wrote “Constellations”, it was still pretty pissed off. The Brown/Trinity MFA production captures the thrilling energy of his vision with two great performances and highly creative direction.

Marianne is an astrophysicist at Cambridge University and Roland is a beekeeper, and they meet cute at a friend’s barbecue. They instantly fall in love. No, Roland is married. No, rather, Roland just got out of a serious relationship. No, now Marianne is in a relationship. Wait, we flashed and Marianne has trouble speaking…

As Marianne says of her work examining the indeterminacy of the quantum realm, sometimes there is “no linear explanation”. So while on the surface Payne’s play is a love story with – perhaps – a tragic ending, it’s actually half a dozen love stories, all interspersed and branching out, following , as Marianne puts it, “Every choice, every decision you’ve ever made,” following these two characters through multiple paths in this 75-minute gem of a script.

The two characters, Marianne (Rebecca-Anne Whittaker) and Roland (Liam MacDougall) are played with charm and energy by these MFA Brown students, both in class of 22/23.

Whittaker has perhaps the toughest challenge, as many branches of the multiverse find her struggling with glioblastoma-induced speech loss. She vividly portrays deep frustration and fear, and her emulation of the halting speech patterns associated with Broca’s aphasia is chillingly accurate. It’s a scary performance.

MacDougall is a brilliant counterpoint to Whittaker’s intensity, sometimes puzzled, a little overwhelmed by his academic exuberance. He plays a perfect beekeeper to his physicist, with an endearing authenticity and deep love that shines through no matter what situation they find themselves in. It is a rich and convincing portrait.

Conducting student Carol Ann Tann (Class of 2022) cleverly staged the action, accompanying each change of “universe” with a brief blackout, a distinctive audio cue, and rapid movement to a new position by MacDougall and Whittaker. Tann has a very clear vision, and she serves to keep what could get confusing for several storylines. This is highly competent and confident leadership, which speaks volumes about Tann’s skills and the quality of the Brown/Trinity training program.

Tann’s use of the environment is particularly impressive. The game is played in the round, and the decor and space, designed by Johanna Pan and Patrick Lynch, is a free, unadorned 15-foot circle on the floor bounded by garland fragments. Tann moves actors with clear intent, often using location to mill a point. For example, Marianne always returns to exactly the same place – no doubt for ironic effect – when she reaches the line “I have to have a choice”.

Lighting designer Nic Vincent has done a great job of covering and isolating the action where needed, and the fades and bumps associated with the many switches between branches of the multiverse are incredibly intricate and well executed, as is the sound design of ‘Elliot Yokum, who provides the sonic accompaniment as the world changes.

It’s not an easy show to produce; in less competent hands, one could easily lose an audience in its many digressions. But here, safe direction and fine performances keep us grounded in the reality that runs through them all: the truth of love, the angst of loss, and the profoundly human challenge of choice.

Brown/Trinity Rep MFA presents Nick PayneCarol’s Constellations, directed by Carol Ann Tan. At the Pell Chafee Performance Center at 87 Empire Street, Providence. Performances on March 6, 7, 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: Student $6 Senior $8 Adult $12, available by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.trinityrep.com/buy-tickets/ and at the box office 201 Washington Street, Providence. Mask and vaccination record required.

Photo by Marisa Lenardson

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