Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Lasso of Truth and Sunset Baby

Anna Sundberg and Ron Menzel
Photo by Dan Norman
Constellations, by British playwright Nick Payne, tells a shallow story with great depth. "What's that?" you say? The shallow story is the slight and familiar tale of a young man and young women meeting, following the broad outline of the relationship they fall into until it comes to an end. The depth comes in when we are given a host of possible alternative paths in which that relationship can travel, kind of a "choose your own adventure" love story, along with the understanding that these varied possibilities—played out in sixty scenes collapsed into eighty minutes—are just the tip of the iceberg, given the infinite ways that experiences can be sliced and combined, the slightest change at any point creating a different story. Further, we are given to understand that these stories are not choices, but rather all exist simultaneously in a multiverse of alternate realities.

If this sounds lofty and vague, that seems to be the playwright's intent. Payne introduces us to two characters—he is a beekeeper named Roland, she is a quantum physicist named Marianne—who meet at a barbeque. That much seems to be established. From there the variations kick in. They hit it off at the barbeque or they don't. He is already in a relationship (or already married) or not. The splintering possibilities include marriage proposals (rejected or accepted), jealousies, boredom, infidelities, breaking up, hanging on, illness, awkward post-breakup encounters or gushing reconciliations. Some scenes are repeated verbatim up until a single word, or tone of voice, or memory departs from one path and onto another.

Constellations leads us on narrow catwalks between the stability of Roland's world to the uncertainties of Marianne's multiple planes of existence. Gary Gisselman directs this interstellar tour of their heart's journey with a steady hand, so that we maintain equilibrium as we jump from one to another universe. This is played on a breathtaking set designed by Kate Sutton-Johnson that is a web of undulating platforms and interconnected shimmering strands, lit (brilliantly, by Barry Browning) in white and silver tones with a black background that suggests infinite depth. We are travelling with Roland and Marianne through the infinite space, exploring a small sample of the infinite universes in which they may exist.

Within the myriad combinations of narrative on display, Roland and Marianne are constants. Marianne, the physicist, explains early on the notion of the multiverse, giving the unversed a tip as to what they are seeing. Roland, the beekeeper, describes the simple and immutable functions of the three, and only three, roles for bees, admiring the constancy of their lives. Their personalities, as etched by Ron Menzel and Anna Sundberg, remain intact in every iteration of their relationship. Menzel's Roland has boyish charm and modesty, finds joy in the simple things and direct experience, and is able to easily lay his heart bare. Sundberg's Marianne is quirky with a playful sense of humor, but more withholding, finding it more difficult to self-reveal, striving to be self-sufficient. The pair have stellar chemistry, going a long way toward making the vast array of variations in their shared journey all believable. The actors also fare well with the British accents in keeping with Payne's homeland setting, though the play is universal enough to probably make the use of accents unnecessary.

Payne's fascinating meditation on the possibility of existence in multiple universes is beautifully written and played with enormous skill. The fractured nature of the narrative, the multiplicity of possible stories set before us, make it difficult to invest as deeply in the fate shared by Marianne and Roland. For some audience members this may have a chilling effect, making this a play better suited for the mind than for the heart.

Still, even if it is true that we exist in multiple universes where our lives take every possible combination of detours and outcomes, we can only act on what is in our present consciousness. In the course of Marianne and Roland's story, I found myself attaching to certain turns over others, rooting for certain outcomes. I could not remain neutral. As we choose among the stimuli that crosses our path, we lay out a direction for our lives—subject to every manner of past and future upheaval to be sure, but still a way to navigate the universe beneath our feet. We no doubt can imagine alternate universes in which our lives play out differently, but we can only know this realm. Yes, Constellations triggers speculation on the infinite possibilities of parallel lives in multiple universes, but it also prompted me to relish the miraculous interlocking facets of experience that give a known and felt life, complete with joys and defeats, to each of us.

Constellations continues at the Jungle Theater through May 29, 2016, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis, MN, 55408. Tickets are $35.00 - $48.00, Senior (60+) discount - $5.00 off per ticket, Public Rush - $10.00 off, Student Rush (with valid ID) half price. For tickets call 612- 822-7073 or go to For group sales call 612-278-0147.

Written by Nick Payne; Director: Gary Gisselman; Scenic and Costume Design: Kate Sutton-Johnson; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Choreography: Myron Johnson; Vocal Coach: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Katie Hawkinson; Technical Director: John Stillwell

Cast: Ron Menzel (Roland), Anna Sundberg (Marianne)