Boy meets girl, something happens, boy loses girl. This is the most common formula for hundreds, if not thousands, of plays and musicals about love and relationships. While each story differs in its details, only a few stand out and find a special place in the memories of their audiences. “Constellations,” Nick Payne’s collage of alternate universes, is perhaps one of the rare plays in which love resists the cookie-cutter narrative.
When Marianne (Emma Hagemann ’17) meets Roland (Ward Archibald ’17) at a barbecue, she begins a conversation by asking him why it’s impossible to lick the tip of one’s elbow. Marianne is an academic with a concentration in what she calls “theoretical early universe cosmology.” Roland is a beekeeper. Despite their wildly different lifestyles, the two embark on a journey. Each scene is replayed multiple times, imagined with different factors and outcomes, existing in various parallel universes that, when woven together, form a so-called “multiverse.”
“Constellations” found its way to the University’s ’92 Theater a year after its successful run on Broadway. The play revolves around the themes of free will, friendship, love, and what Marianne calls “quantum multiverses”—exploring the many possible outcomes of a conversation depending on its circumstances. The audience is presented with multiple variations of each scene, which build on one another to create the overall narrative of the play. “Constellations” disregards notions of what a perfect relationship should entail. Rather than finding a solution to the complex nature of human relations, it asserts the point that a solution may not be the goal after all.
The most appealing aspect of “Constellations” is the simplicity at its core. Director Jess Wolinsky ’17 paid careful attention to this, respecting the dialogue’s minimalist nature while maintaining the complexity of its characters. Wolinsky first learned about the play first through Shapiro Distinguished Professor of Writing and Theater Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Contemporary Playwriting class. Wolinksy enjoyed the play’s emphasis on different perspectives rather than a single one.
“Immediately, I thought it would be a crazy challenge to try to direct this, so I put that upon myself,” Wolinsky said.
Last semester, Wolinsky directed “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a musical comedy with a cast considerably larger than the two-person cast of “Constellations.” Wolinsky found working on “Constellations” to be more intimate.
“I also felt like we could go at a pace that we wanted to go, rather than having to create big [musical] numbers and keep rehearsing those numbers,” Wolinsky said. “We could really explore what it means to be a human in the world of the play.”
Hagemann and Archibald skillfully and faithfully portrayed Marianne and Roland while keeping the audience engaged with their unorthodox but honest dialogues. Both played with the shift in chemistry and power between the two characters throughout the play, emphasizing subtle differences that could be otherwise easily overlooked or taken for granted by audience members. In the middle of a theater in the round, these two managed not only to make the audience laugh, but also to establish a pattern of emotions and connections between the characters and the audience that continued throughout the entire play.
With a design team led by Lily Homer ’17 on set, Nola Werlinich ’17 on lighting, Miranda Gohh ’17 on sound, Celina Gray Bernstein ’18 on costume, and Emily Fehr ’17 on props, Wolinsky merged her direction with a unique aesthetic that could be best described as a romantic, starry evening. A collection of objects ranging from a honey jar to a small bouquet of flowers hung above the stage floor. Blue LED lights in a beehive pattern flooded the stage, disorienting the audience’s sense of time and space, along with the strobe lights that appeared during transitions between the scene variations.
It’s delightful to see a smaller-scale play at Wesleyan, where the theater scene often focuses more on musicals with larger casts, and even more delightful to see it produced with care and passion. I can only hope that more students feel compelled to bring such stories to Wesleyan, sharing their own multiverses with a constellation of people waiting to experience them.