Constellations

by: Michael Shields

A new Broadway production starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson takes you on a cosmic journey of the heart….

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“Our senses tell us that time flows: namely that the past is fixed, the future is undetermined and reality lives in the present. Yet various physical and philosophical arguments suggest otherwise. Time is an allusion.” – Paul Davies, theoretical physicist and cosmologist, “That Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American Vol. 23, issue number 4

What if the multiverse did exist? What if there were a sea of parallel universes, including the one we inhabit, awash with infinite possibilities that together comprise all that exists? What if these alternate realities paralleled, in makeup, our own? And what if in these surrogate planes of existence, what unfolded was the multitude of possibilities that could occur over the course of one’s life? What if we could watch, in one performance, these possibilities spread out before our very eyes? To be given an opportunity to glimpse the various ways the moments in our lives could play out. To witness, with nerve-rattling clarity, how easily that which is so important to us can slip through our fingers, or better yet, draw more near. This is the concept behind Constellations, a new theatrical production starring – in their Broadway debuts – Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler) and Ruth Wilson (Luther, The Affair), playing now on Broadway.

An agglomeration of sleek, ivory balloons in all manner of sizes galvanizes and illuminates the stage prior to the actor’s arrival and throughout the production. From far atop the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, you can make out an elevated platform, a raised black box on which the performers dance about, literally at times. Its design is that of a honeycomb, a series of intertwined hexagons, that conceptually serves as nod to the profession of Roland (Jake Gyllenhaal), a beekeeper who falls in love (sometimes!) with a Quantum Physicist1 named Marianne. These occupations are not merely defining attributes of Roland and Marianne, but entities that breathe life into the the production, and whose elements help us define the plays limitless journey.

Constellations is a new play by Nick Payne (If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet), which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre to overwhelming acclaim. This mystifying, romantic journey has found its way across the pond and is is currently living a new life with two prodigious actors well versed in nuance and the shrewd portrayal of idiosyncratic textures. What begins with a meeting between a man and a woman, expeditiously transcends into so much more. For what unfolds breaks free from the well-defined confines of the known world, and in doing so explores poignant ideas about destiny, fate, and the fallibility of choice. As Marianne describes to Roland “every decision you’ve ever and never made exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes,” and that is a true manifestation of the heart of Constellations, an offering of ‘what could have beens’ and ‘what ifs’, that effectively persuade the viewer to explore their own regrets, and to come to terms with how easily broken our lines of communication can become.

What Constellation amounts to is a master’s class in acting, an exhibition by two dynamic thespians of tone and delivery. Both characters and their situations change from minute to minute, and because of this we are poignantly reminded again and again of how divergent our lives could be if a simple word, or phrase, were to be delivered in a different way. Jake, operating flawlessly with an English accent, and Ruth, enchanting, whimsical and complicated, display a persuasive chemistry and unfathomable range as they take you spinning through space, their relationship altering drastically with every choice that they make. The premise of Constellations is steeped in cosmological science, and the more you know about the principles of string theory, relativity and quantum mechanics, the better. But the science behind Constellations is inconsequential to the waves of heart and feeling that wash over you from the stage. This isn’t an academic undertaking, but rather a moving journey taken by two endearing souls as they together experience happiness, confusion, hurt, and every emotion in between. And as an audience member, it is impossible not to see ourselves in these embattled lovebirds, and in doing so, emphatically synchronize our emotions with the paralyzing ones they feel.

A more cerebral, sophisticated, and surreal experience you will not find on Broadway, now or in the foreseeable future. Impeccably staged by the original production’s director, Michael Longhurst, Constellations is short (seventy minutes, no intermissions), potent, and haunting in the way that it will linger with you for days and weeks to come….and this certainly is a very good thing.

  1. Well, a Cambridge University academic specializing in “theoretical early universe cosmology.” []

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