Review: Constellations at KC Rep

Have you ever wondered about how things might have been if you had made a different decision, no matter how small? What your life may have been or what subtle or significant changes these choices may have made?  Constellations at the KC Repertory Theater, which opened Friday on the Copaken Stage in the H&R Block building downtown, delves into the concept of the multi-verse to explore just that.

The concept of the multi-verse comes from the String Theory which essentially creates similar, yet different universes that run parallel to ours where every choice you could make or never make are played out simultaneously in different “strings”. Constellations follows the stories of Marianne (Bree Elrod), a Cambridge University cosmologist (the study of large scale properties of the universe) and Roland (Tuc Watkins), a beekeeper. At first it’s difficult to see the concept play out because the scenes repeat themselves with some modest changes. Each scene is broken by lighting and subtle blocking changes to help keep the continuity as we follow parallel stories. As the stories progress, we see how things play out on many different levels. Each multi-verse plays out in short scenes with much of the dialogue overlapping to illustrate the different strings. Some have an obvious conclusion, others provide us snippets of yet another possible direction of the relationship in an alternative multi-verse.

It sounds more complicated than it plays. Director Eric Rosen moves the scenes at an excellent pace and clearly delineates them with nuanced precision so we don’t get lost along the way. It’s a challenge because so much of the dialogue repeats, sometimes many times. As each scene is a different string, the actors need to communicate the subtle shifts of the characters who are all similar, yet different. As Nick Payne’s script runs not only parallel, but also forward and backward in time, it’s crucial that the actors have a very clear idea of their character in each and every scene. Bree Elrod is magnificent at these nuances. Her Marianne is brilliant. She is appropriately quirky but conveys so much at the beginning of each scene (and there are a lot of them) that you can feel the difference of her character every time. Tuc Watkins’ Roland has a larger challenge as the playwright gives him much less to work with. I would have liked to have seen greater range from him during some of the more emotional scenes. He was more difficult to follow and there are a few points where I wondered whether a particular string had somehow take us to a multi-verse where they were only friends with remnants of a relationship that was no more.

Overall, I found some inconsistencies with the script and the multi-verse theory. Early on when they are meeting for the first time the scene plays out many times but Roland apparently is sometimes married, engaged or available. Yet if these multi-verses were that significantly different due to previous choices, how do these two people find themselves in exactly the same place at the same time saying almost the exact same thing? But it is just theory after all, so the playwright has the freedom to explore it any way he wants. The concept for this play came out of a dark time for him. He had just been commissioned to write a new play when, shortly thereafter, his father died. This led him to seek solace and in doing so he fell upon the string theory. It opened his mind to the possibility that perhaps, in some different multi-verse, his father was still alive.

As usual, KC Rep delivers on concept. The set by Jason Sherwood is very elegant, yet simple and the tech is subtle but extremely effective. It creates a compelling backdrop for this two person play. The set itself, with it’s circular stage and the spiraling design of identically constructed boxes filled with similar, yet different, items foreshadows the concept of the play. Grant Wilcoxen’s lighting design was crucial to helping us navigate the twists of the multiple strands of scenes and never felt heavy handed. The music and sound by Andre Pluess was perfect down to some subtle microphone manipulations in certain scenes.

Constellations runs at the Copaken Stage in the H&R Block Building downtown through April 2. For show and ticket information go to http://www.kcstage.com/performance/constellations.

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