Remember Bizarro World in the Superman comics? The world where everything was the reverse of our real world? The new comedy at the Dallas Theater Center called ‘Constellations’ multiplies that idea into one story shifting into many other different stories. A young couple may or may not meet, she may leave him, he may propose marriage. Local All Things Considered host Justin Martin sat down with Art & Seek’s Jerome Weeks to talk about physics and the many possibilities of two people in love.
Our extended conversation:
Justin, here’s a question you don’t often hear in a conversation about theater: What is the multiverse?
Oooh. The multiverse? It’s a theory in physics that’s very popular now. Supposedly, there’s an infinite number of universes. In quantum mechanics, for instance – that’s on the level of sub-atomic particles – events are considered only ‘probabilities,’ not actual, you know, real events. So that implies these other probabilities could also exist – in separate universes, universes where, I dunno, I’m a millionaire and pigs fly or fish walk.
OK, so that notion of infinite universes where different versions of ourselves exist – that’s what’s behind the play, Constellations. It’s getting its area premiere, opening the new season at the Dallas Theater Center. Constellations is the story of two young Brits who meet cute and fall in love. Or they meet badly and don’t fall in love.
Basically, Constellations keeps hitting the re-set button on this game. We see the same scene played out again and again – but differently each time. Here’s Allison Pistorius as Marianne and Alex Organ as Roland when they first meet:
Marianne: Nothing worse than a soggy barbecue.
Marianne: Soggy sausages. Would you like a drink?
Roland: I’m all right. My wife’s actually just gone to get me a beer.
Marianne: Nothing worse than a soggy barbecue.
Roland: So are you a friend of Jane – or?
Marianne: No, yeah, we were at college together. Yourself?
Roland: My wife used to work with Jane.
Marianne: Nothing worse than a soggy barbecue
Roland: So are you a friend of Jane’s or – ?
Marianne: Who’s Jane?
Roland: She’s the lady having the barbecue
Marianne: Oh, right. Christ, no. I was just walking past and I saw a load of free booze and sausages. . . . I’m joking.
That sounds like it could be very funny, like Groundhog Day. You know, ‘You keep doing this until you get it right.’ Or it could be maddening – like a broken record.
Yeah, but with this story, we do get forward progress. What happens is the play will suddenly leap forward to another possibly pivotal moment. Does she fall ill? Does he cheat on her? Does she cheat on him?
In this whole multiple scenario-deal, it helps that, as a couple, these two are a bit mismatched, giving Nick Payne, the playwright, different possibilities to play with. Roland’s a beekeeper, a regular bloke, a bit tongue-tied, while Marianne’s a theoretical physicist who gets chatty when she’s nervous. Marianne’s job in physics is how Payne brings in the whole multiverse theory – she tries to explain it to Roland. But people shouldn’t think, ‘Oh, that‘s a great evening in the theater: a lecture on quantum mechanics.’ Constellations doesn’t shovel physics at us. Instead we are watching, in effect, the multiverse in action – a demonstration model, as it were – the whole idea is fascinating in its stutter-stop rhythmic process, and Marianne’s own fascination with it makes it even lyrical.
Well, I certainly find it fascinating. Kudos to Payne for making it accessible. That’s tough to do.
Reviewers have certainly been fascinated by the multiverse and have waxed poetic about it. But this is hardly the first time it’s been used. As you said, it’s become a very popular idea in our culture right now. The Atlantic even recently published a diatribe against the whole idea as injurious and pointless. Indeed, the same scientists who argue for the possibility of a multiverse often point out that it simply can’t be proven.
So what’s the point? In literary-theatrical terms – unlike in ordinary life – it permits puzzle-building and puzzle-solving. If we set aside sci-fi fantasy parallel worlds that often just involve time travel mucking things up, one of the first literary uses of multiple narratives was probably first outlined in the Jorge Luis Borges short story, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ from 1941. And then, of course, there’s the recent musical If/Then, which explores the whole idea of ‘the road not taken’ by showing us how each choice would have ended up.
What distinguishes Constellations from these, though, is that it doesn’t show us a simple alternative or parallel world. It shows us multiple possibilities, repeatedly. Everyone else has been playing checkers. Payne plays chess with the idea.
But I think reviewers’ fascination with What The Multiverse Means About Life has led them to miss two fundamentally theatrical reasons Constellations works, why it’s an intricate, elegant yet simple and moving two-hander.[
That’s theater-speak for a two-person play.
First, Constellations is an extremely daunting acting challenge. Repeating the same lines over and over again while changing your expressions and tweaking the punch line each time? You have to remember this is when you say that line drunk but the next time you say it angry. Doing all of that is like going from zero to 60 emotionally and then slamming it in reverse. And then doing it all over again in a split-second. The chances an actor’ll screw up and find himself circling back into a scene from ten minutes ago is terrifying.
Alex Organ and Allison Pistorius are exceptionally fine at the emotional hairpin turns. We’ve seen Organ do this kind of intimacy and intensity before, although not at this velocity. But for Dallas theatergoers who haven’t seen Pistorius on Fort Worth stages, Constellations is a showcase for her. Organ and Pistorius – and director Wendy Dann – make this is a sweet, sharp little show at the Theater Center.
But my second point about how Constellations works so well on stage is there are some 50 scenes here, so theoretically –
– theoretically, we’re seeing 50 different universes, 50 different couples.
Right, but that’s not how it feels in the theater. What we see are 50 different aspects of this single couple, Roland and Marianne. We explore their possibilities. And we see them, in effect, play out and then reject some of the crueler, more self-destructive choices.
The title is an odd choice, you know. Constellations don’t have any direct connection to string theory or quantum mechanics or anything else that goes into ‘proving’ the multiverse. In astronomy, constellations don’t even exist. They’re not ‘real.’
Of course. We made them up. They’re just random, meaningless stars in the sky, and we saw these patterns that reminded us of gods and bears or whatever.
Well, what Constellations does is draw all these emotional lines, these variant connections, between these two people. We come to know Roland and Marianne more intimately than many other stage characters simply because we’ve seen them in all these combinations and re-combinations: wretched and wrong-headed, passionate and funny. There’s this wealth of human detail here. The two characters are like emotional star clusters – with the kind of depth and complexity you more typically get in a novel.
Which is why Constellations is only 90 minutes long but feels so much richer than that
Top image from shutterstock.