Constellations a moving multiverse rom-com

The multiverse is a scientific theory that suggests the possibility of not just one universe – but many. They all exist at the same time. So if you’re reading a review about a play at this moment – in another universe you are running a marathon, or lying on a beach in Bali. These universes are hypothetically endless.

Playwright Nick Payne has taken this hypothesis and turned it into a fascinating fantasy while putting the old familiar rom-com into a whole new, ah, universe in Shadow Theatre’s current production of Constellations, at the Varscona Theatre until Nov. 12.

Marianne (Liana Shannon) is a scientist working in the field of quantum cosmology (“the study of gravitational singularity and Planck time” – explains Google) and Roland (Mat Busby) is a simple beekeeper. They meet at a party. Despite the quantum distance between their respective daily pursuits, the two hit it off.

But then the lights flicker, the action freezes, the music blurs to a stop and the same scene is repeated. We are in a different universe where Groundhog Day meets Edge of Tomorrow. Each shudder signals a new life in a different universe as the relationship develops through starts and stops. First night – they have sex. Or – they don’t. Later, she has an affair – then he does. The two remain as shaded variations of themselves, but the dynamic between them keeps changing in new and unexpected ways. Through it all their love keeps growing.

There is some repetition here but, as in Groundhog Day, when you get the drift of what is going on, the whole idea becomes quite intriguing. And funny. There’s a lot of humour as Marianne and Roland express the same emotions in very different ways in different worlds.

Amy DeFelice’s tight direction makes sure there is enough variation in the disparate universes to keep things interesting. There is enough that is similar so there is no difficulty in tracing the trajectory of the simple love story that beats at the centre. Marianne and Roland are ingratiating characters and Shannon and Busby flesh them out skillfully in well-articulated full-on British accents. Particularly impressive is their ability to keep the subtleties of the characters in their various universes rigorously defined while, instantly, changing the mood (and indeed even their chemistry). You become involved in their lives and the two disarming performers bring considerable depth to an experience that could be just a fun experiment with time and space.

Shannon has an intense propulsive energy that drags you along through the more exotic elements of the play while Busby is more pragmatic and grounded. Constellations may be based on exotic physics but, due to these fine actors, their convoluted relationship has the aura of everyday plausibility.

If you’re looking for cosmic meaning here beyond theoretical physics, it is that the play reaches as much into our own lives as it reaches out into the cosmos. Life is a progression of infinite possibilities that ends only (as the program points out) when our lives end. Who among us has not wondered what might have happened if the outcome of a relationship, or the dynamic of an event, had been different?

All is played out on Tessa Stamp’s artful and atmospheric blackboard and chalk set suspended in a black cosmos and greatly assisted by Chris Wynters’ lyrics and electronic score.

Constellations is intelligent, innovative and involving. Despite all the physics at the basis of the play there is enough reality and genuine emotion to evoke a few tears at the end.

The experience will also generate much room for conversation all the way home – and beyond.

Photos by Marc J Chalifoux