Theater Review: “Constellations” — A Drama about the Music of Time

Nick Payne’s fascinating Constellations takes the cosmic paradoxes of time head on.

Constellations by Nick Payne. Directed by Gus Kaikkonen. Staged by Peterborough Players, 55 Hadley Road, Peterborough, NH, through July 16.

Bridget Beirne as Marianne and Sean Patrick Hopkins as Roland in the Peterborough Players production of "Constellations." Photo: Dana Angellis.

Bridget Beirne as Marianne and Sean Patrick Hopkins as Roland in the Peterborough Players production of “Constellations.” Photo: Dana Angellis.

By Jim Kates

The nature of theatrical performance is that it takes place in linear time. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. Time flies like an arrow.

Only — philosophers and physical scientists have taught us, there is no arrow, just our shaky intellectual construct of an arrow. In its extreme formulation, everything that can happen does happen. Everywhere. At the same time. (Some stage managers take this for granted.)

Playwrights for several generations now have wrestled with the limitations of time on stage. They have rolled with it, run it backwards, stopped it completely, and turned it circular. But the curtain still rises (if only metaphorically) at the beginning and falls at the end.

Nick Payne’s Constellations takes the cosmic paradoxes of time head on. While the script tells the most conventional of love stories — courtship, conflict, complacency, death — the drama presents the audience with a stuttering multiplicity of forking paths. Classical tragedy generally leaves us with the certainty of an end. Constellations brings us to a point that seems to be definitive, but then provides a myriad of other possibilities. The philosophical ache in this conventional love story comes from the playful suggestion that no action is really inevitable, even if it seems to end in death. “At any moment several outcomes can exist simultaneously”; this is the very antithesis of Western tragedy.

Even embedded this expansive web of potentiality, love still means never having to say you’re sorry. Constellations are, after all, only patterns our eye makes in our mind, not actualities.

This is a play that rolls around and around, dramatic possibilities multiplying and multiplying. Six or seven times the same words, the same cues, lead to slightly different responses, and these responses then serve up conflicting cues. The loopiness demands a light-footed quickness from the actors; Constellations could easily stumble into cuteness.

Gravity may be a ‘weak’ force, but it keeps Constellations grounded. An underlying sense of mortality provides a  target for the nonexistent arrow of time. Payne had the wisdom, once he established his conceit, not to overdo its complexity. Constellations is a brief, fast-moving play whose dramatic weight has been carefully modulated. The rhythm of the plot’s cues and responses are well paced;  its physics and metaphysics never become tedious. Believe me, there is no tedium in the Peterborough Players’ production.

It’s no coincidence that Gus Kaikkonen has not only has directed the actors, but also designed the set in careful collaboration with John Eckert, the lighting designer. From the very start, the pair are determined to make a sparkling spectacle of Constellations. And they succeed. The production is a choreography of sound and light and action – a kind of cosmic dance — in a compact space.

The challenge for Marianne (Bridget Beirne) and Roland (Sean Patrick Hopkins) is to play out different scenarios of their relationship yet maintain a consistency of character throughout the fragmentation. I found immense pleasure in watching Beirne, who accepts Marianne’s mortality with a deep equanimity (“We have all the time we’ve always had”) not just when she is speaking, but when she is listening. Her virtuosity is evident through her physicality, her deft variety of reactions — she has the most eloquent shoulders I have seen on stage in a very long time.

While Marianne lives and aproaches death, lives and approaches death, Roland plays the role of straight man, an observer of her coming and going. Hopkins shows himself exceptionally good at conveying subtle modulations in Roland’s necessarily repetitious reactions. No scene, however similar it is to the one before, treads on the toes of its predecessor. Roland’s proposal to Marianne is particularly exemplary. By this time we know what comes — next ( I suppose I have to say), although that presupposes the passage of time. Yet Hopkins somehow manages to intimate innocence — he doesn’t seem to know what is to come.

Constellations has a musical quality, supplying fascinating variations on a theme — the music of time.

Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Muddy River (Carcanet), a translation of verse by Russian existentialist Sergey Stratanovsky. His translation of Mikhail Yeryomin: Selected Poems 1957-2009 (White Pine Press) won the second Cliff Becker Prize in Translation.

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