Look to the stars

‘Constellations’ now playing at Black Box Theatre

MARQUETTE — Now playing at Northern Michigan University’s Panowski Black Box Theatre is “Constellations” by Nick Payne. A taut, complex, entertaining and thought-provoking drama about a relationship viewed through the lens of quantum multiverse theory.

Constellations follows the relationship of Roland and Marianne across the infinite range of possible outcomes. In quantum multiverse theory, all possible outcomes, all choices made and all choices not made are occurring in their own universe all the time — or have already all occurred irrespective of time. A life or a relationship is simply the choices that skip you to any one of an infinite range of possibilities (pardon my watered-down understanding/telling of the underlying theory–physics is not my wheelhouse). What an amazing “setting” for a play to unfold in.

Scenes and snippets of scenes play over and over, each with some subtle difference or some not so subtle ones. The couple is meeting, reminiscing, together, apart, sick, happy, confused; each little universe is separate yet connected. There is no linear storytelling except within each little scene itself. Time is, as explained by the astrophysicist Marianne, irrelevant to what is going on. You always have all the time in your universe. Everything has already happened, you are simply navigating the possibilities. The two characters are the constants, although their interactions and reactions are different in each universe. Fascinating stuff this, and in the right hands, very entertaining.

Shelley Russell indeed has the right hand to guide this complex work. Her vision and experience in the theater have brought her all the tools she needed to make this show a reality. She is aided by a stellar lighting design (pardon the pun) by David Pierce that sets each scene–each universe–apart with unique and distinctive lighting effects. And the sound design, credited to Bill Digneit, who quickly demurred and directed me to Anna LaBreche (credited as the assistant sound designer), is superb. The choices of music, sound effects, transitions–even the well timed opening of pantomimed pop cans and wine bottles–all are the work of someone far more experienced than a college student doing her first sound design. Set this all on some clever metal platforms designed by Vic Holliday and place it in the intimate confines of the Black Box–configured for this show with a runway acting space set between two rows of seating–and the whole show is an immersive experience unlike anything at NMU in recent memory.

The two actors in this show have a huge challenge. How to play the same characters, often repeating the same dialogue, over and over in subtly different ways each time. Shifting from somber to light-hearted, serious to whimsical, sad to devastated — sometimes large shifts from scene to scene, sometimes just very subtly different — all with no “downtime,” no breaks in the action. They are both onstage every moment. No costume changes to help us differentiate each character’s changes, no props, nothing but their acting and the director’s guidance to translate it to us. And both do it beautifully. Taylor Ehle is Marianne. She does an admirable job with her character’s complexities. Language, posture, tonal qualities, emotions, accents, she handles all with a natural ease that betrays how difficult her role truly is. Taylor has primarily been known as a comedic actress. Her recent turn in Noises Off! was proof of her abilities in a comedy. But here she shines in a dramatic piece. Bravo.

Max Stevens is up to the task of playing opposite of Ms. Ehle. Max is a freshman in his first college production, but you would never know it. Again, his approach to all the variations on a theme in his character are well handled, believable, natural and enjoyable. Ms. Russell was wise to take a chance on this newcomer to the program. It paid off in spades. I look forward to seeing more of Mr. Stevens through the balance of his career here at NMU and hope that he appears in other local productions as well.

To sum it up, this is a well-crafted and well-produced bit of theater. Definitely worth your time and the price of a ticket. It will have you thinking about life, the universe, time, possibilities–everything, really. If you are looking for a light-hearted evening of slapstick this isn’t it. If you are looking for theater, theater that makes you think, that makes you laugh, that you can relate to, that might make you cry, that will make you reflect — you need to buy a ticket.

Constellations plays now through Saturday at the Panowski Black Box Theatre on NMU’s campus. Times and ticket information are available at the Forest Roberts Theatre webpage, on the FRT Facebook page, and at the NMU EZ Tickets website www.nmu.edu/tickets. Seating is limited in the Black Box, so get your tickets now so you don’t miss this show.