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Review: ‘Constellations’ tries to find string theory in relationships (Includes first-hand account)

Making its Toronto debut with Canadian Stage under the vision of director Peter Hinton, Constellations follows the ups and downs of a couple, outgoing Cambridge University researcher Marianne (Cara Ricketts) and awkward beekeeper Roland (Graham Cuthbertson). But what makes this storyline different from the typical romcom formula is that it tells multiple versions of how the relationship goes, depending on different choices the characters make or different circumstances. A cosmology expert, Marianne is fascinated by string theory – or more specifically, the notion that there are many different parallel universes reflecting the one we’re in and “several outcomes can exist simultaneously,” as she describes it.

So when this pair first meet at a mutual friend’s barbecue, they actually do it over and over: in one incarnation, he’s married; in another, he’s interested; in another, she botches her attempt at conversation; and in other versions, they say different things leading to different endings and so on. We also see different retellings of their first overnight tryst, their breakup, their chance meeting at a ballroom-dance class and their subsequent (and improbable) reunion, Roland’s marriage proposal and more. If that makes the play sound a bit repetitive, well… yes, it is. But at least Hinton does a good job of changing the blocking around and moving things along at a quick pace, so it isn’t dull.

I’ll be the first to admit that this play might have spoken to me more personally if I’d had a stronger background in cosmology and string theory, or at least if I’d been prepared for the unconventional structure. Not that Payne’s dialogue doesn’t have a lot of universal heart and sincerity in it (he was inspired to write Constellations after the death of his father, which is reflected in later scenes in which impending mortality plays a part). But for me, the play was more like Sliding Doors blown up to its logical extremes, or reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book straight through from cover to cover. You long to latch onto a character, a story, an image, anything, but it all keeps changing so much that the gimmick overwhelms the content in the end.

If nothing else, Hinton’s production is visually appealing, thanks to a unique set by Michael Gianfrancesco, consisting of a large, round, white platform with an outer path that can rotate mechanically. Most of Ricketts’ and Cuthbertson’s interactions happen on this platform, with some monologues delivered while one slowly orbits around the other; you have to admire the way these moments are choreographed. Montreal cellist Jane Chan sits upstage playing a gentle musical accompaniment scattered with a few familiar melodies (including Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”); her presence isn’t necessary, but adds welcome atmosphere. There’s also a large white balloon sitting at stage right that Cuthbertson picks up and lightly tosses at one point, for no conceivable reason. Whatever this is supposed to symbolize is lost on me, at least on only one viewing.

Of the two cast members, Ricketts comes off better, with charm and vulnerability to spare as the intelligent, talkative, yet sometimes strangely needy Marianne. Cuthbertson’s delivery, on the other hand, has a limited, high-pitched range that makes Roland seem whiny and off-putting at times, rather than shy and good-natured. More perplexing, though, is that it’s not really clear what these two people see in each other. This may be because Payne’s script doesn’t chronicle their relationship as a gradually changing or growing thing: it’s more like a series of high and low moments stacked on top of each other. Or it could just be because they’re not very interesting people. Or both.

Constellations, which opened in Toronto on Thursday, received plenty of acclaim during its West End and Broadway runs. It’s likely that these were better productions that brought Payne’s vision across more successfully, but you might also wonder if some critics were so attracted to the overall concept and themes that they missed (or forgave) the play’s more dissatisfying aspects. Whatever the reason, CanStage’s version won’t make you see romance, or physics, in a new way. Hinton tries hard, but this is more of a Little Dipper than a big one.

Constellations runs at the Bluma Appel Theatre (St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts) until November 27.

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