The stage of Constellations is an intimate six-sided space, beneath a geometric frame of shimmering panes — the stage is like one small cell in a cosmic honeycomb. What transpires here is all possible worlds of connection between Marianne (Phoebe Parker), a physicist studying quantum cosmology, and Roland (Matt Delamater), a beekeeper.
Nick Payne’s two-hander is on stage now in a transporting show at SPACE Gallery, directed by Sean Mewshaw (the director behind legendary SPACE shows Killer Joe and Gruesome Playground Injuries) and with a dazzling immersive installation by John Sundling. It is far too good to miss.
With its prismatic structure, its cables strung at angles through the gallery, and a few other space-age surprises, Sundling’s installation conjures at once a cell, a universe, and a cathedral, all before the play even begins. The show opens with a mesmerizing little musical prelude, as small spots of light grow, float, and melt into each other (gorgeous lighting design by Heather Crocker, sound by Ian Hundt, and projections by Amelia Persans). And then: “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbow?” Marianne asks a surprised Roland at a barbeque. This first moment of their communion turns out to be miraculously plural: In Constellations, we watch countless variations on this and other scenes of their relationship, given Marianne’s belief that we might be “part of a multiverse” — that all our possible choices might coexist in parallel dimensions.
It certainly is a ravishing premise, and Delamater and Parker execute its fragmented repetitions and fluctuations with agility and abundant tenderness. As they deliver precariously similar lines multiple times, they vary their characters’ tone, confidence, receptivity, innuendo, rage, and/or intoxication. It doesn’t get old. Key to their success is an intimate, less-is-more naturalness, which keeps the show from becoming a series of stylized burlesques. Instead, their variations become a fascinating vehicle of suspense, as we watch the myriad possibilities of whether and how, for example, Marianne asks Roland to leave or to stay.
Soon we are also seeing fragments from farther along their trajectory; the narrative is propelled toward both the “ending” and how many ways a given moment can go. Parker’s Marianne takes Roland home now with drunken, laughing sensuality, other times with a self-protective restraint that — depending on Roland — sometimes turns defensive, sometimes softens. Roland’s reaction to an infidelity is stricken, then lit with sarcastic rage, then awash in forgiveness. Both actors are superb, and show a special virtuosity for shifting from a scene of aching closeness, skin against skin in almost cellular intimacy, to dancing at arm’s length and the distance of strangers.
Payne’s writing is funny, colloquial, and particular (Marianne talks of cosmic microphase; a rival is mocked now for his bowl cut, now for his dandruff). It also holds some breathtaking surprises. A suddenly near-silent scene is delivered entirely in sign language.
A struggling Marianne (haunting, in Parker’s hands) lands on rivetingly wrong words: “Before, people had face,” she says haltingly, trying to explain how we once dealt with crisis. “Before things became skin.”
Through Parker and Delamater’s remarkably empathetic performances, any one version of the couple comes to feel like the sum of its multiplicity. And its exquisite final moments, Constellations lets Marianne and Roland waltz in the vastness of their possibilities, much like Tom Stoppard’s Thomasina and Septimus, in another play about physics and love, waltz in the face of entropy. As Marianne and Roland dance, their infinite choices — and the limits of knowing only one at a time — scintillate in the air. We might feel our own myriad selves hovering somewhere close.
Constellations | By Nick Payne; directed by Sean Mewshaw | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | Through May 21 | $15 adv, $18 day of | www.space538.org
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