By James V. Ruocco
British dramatist Nick Payne's "Constellations" brings two people together (one man; one woman) in typical chance meeting fashion that is anything but typical.
In his universe, everyone exists in a parallel world that actually offers more parallels and worlds than one might imagine.
You bet, it is.
"In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you've ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes," the character of Marianne (a physicist) tells the character of Roland (a beekeeper), shortly after the play begins.
If Marianne is correct, then, maybe, I never attended the opening night performance of "Constellations" at TheaterWorks in Hartford. I never conversed with director Rob Ruggiero in the lobby ten minutes right before the start of the play. I never had dinner at Bin 228, a cozy restaurant right across the street from TheaterWorks. I never left my charge cards on the dresser along with $100 cash before leaving for the theater.
I also never wrote this particular column.
In actuality, however, I do live in this particular world, universe, playground, cosmos, etc. Yes, I was in the audience at TheaterWorks during the opening night of "Constellations." And yes, it was a night of theater I will never forget.
So, let's begin.
The theatrical gravity of "Constellations," so to speak, is smart, spare, simple and smooth. What matters here is the chance meeting that happens between two people and how it all plays out. This is not a play about awe-inspired sets, costuming and visuals. It's a play that requires a mastermind of sorts who can deftly arrange and rearrange Payne's parallel puzzles and transitions with subtle movement that is effortless, but openly involving.
With Rob Ruggiero, as directorial navigator, "Constellations" is seamless, beautiful, inviting and gratifying. Everything is marvelously thought out, rendered, staged and blocked with such deft precision, it just keeps spinning and spinning. Working from Payne's intoxicating script, the director concocts a taut, urgent and gripping night of theater that thrusts you into a world of what if's, parallel mind games, answers and conclusions guaranteed to prompt intelligent conversation long after the play has ended for weeks to come.
"Constellations" also benefits from Ruggiero's enlistment of Billy Bivona (composer/ musician), Philip S. Rosenberg (lighting design), Jean Kim (set design) and Michael Miceli (sound design) as his production team. Here, everyone is united as one to make perfect sense out of the play's umpteenth parallel universe transitions through varied light cues, sound cues, music cues, etc. All of it falls into place so nicely, there is never any doubt as to what is happening on stage or when time and place actually changes along with the personalities of the same characters. It's all very beautiful to watch and observe.
Casting is the key element in the working machinations of "Constellations" and director Rob Ruggiero has found the ideal Roland and Marianne in M. Scott McLean and Allison Pistorius. As actors, they are completely in sync with the quirky, intuitive and manic energies of Nick Payne's riveting, but challenging script which is the glue that holds "Constellations" together for its relatively short 70-minute running time. They also share a passion and excitement for performance which is obvious from the moment they appear on stage and invite us into their story and its plethora of every-changing scenarios, dialogue, movements and connections, which the playwright concocts with immersive, compelling and dynamic relish.
With Ruggiero pulling the strings like as master puppeteer, McLean and Pistorius never once miss a beat, a turn, a stop, a go, a pause, a surprise, a twist, a connection or a short-circuited disconnection. They are an amazing, exhilarating twosome who lovingly embrace Payne's playtext, each other and the director's choice, balanced, simplistic stage direction. They also have complete fun playing off one another, which, in turn, makes their on-stage chemistry entirely plausible along with their many, many, many variations of Roland and Marianne.
From an actor's standpoint, the very idea of playing two people who meet and connect in countless parallel universes that never once stop turning, is completely invigorating and challenging. Every time a scene starts, stops or begins again, the actor must reconnect with the character, the situation or a line of dialogue, using slightly different interpretations, both vocally and physically. Sometimes, there's a pause. Sometimes, there is not. The actor, in turn, must be ready to go and, thus, make the split-second change unobtrusively without the blink of an eye or a heartbeat.
As "Constellations" unfolds and builds to its surprise, gratifying conclusion, McLean and Pistorius digest and sustain the uniqueness of their wildly imaginative actor's ride brilliantly. They are charming. They are intense. They are sexual. They are delightful. They are puzzling. They are curious. They are surprising. They are earthy. They are entertaining. They are quirky. They make us smile. They make us cheer. They reduce us to tears. And when it all ends, the standing ovation they get, is richly deserved.
Brimming with beautiful, real-life moments, situations and conversations, "Constellations" makes for a riveting watch. Ruggiero's tight, fueled direction and the onstage chemistry between McLean and Pistorius make this a production not to miss.
"Constellations" is being staged at TheaterWorks/Hartford (233 Pearl St., Hartford, CT), now through Feb. 18.
For tickets or more information, call (860) 527-7838.