Could-have-been, should-have-been, might-have-been moments in time: Constellations at Theatre Nova

Originally contributed to encoremichigan.com

[Images from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

Big ideas in little moments. That seems to be Theatre Nova’s stock-in-trade, making effective use of its unconventional venue to feature new works (Clutter, The Revolutionists) that explore existential philosophy as expressed in the comic, poignant, tragic spaces between the rain drops of daily living. It’s a smart and essential artistic niche the organization has carved for itself.

Theatre Nova’s latest offering – Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations – is in brilliant keeping with this artistic through-line, a breezy and compelling two-hander that runs a brisk intermission-less 70 minutes.

Directed with the surety of an actor’s eye by Theatre Nova founder Carla Milarch, the play depicts in non-linear fashion the ever-was and never-was moments in the romance, dissolution, reconnection, and tragic end of a young mumblecore couple in contemporary England. Marianne (a wide-eyed, sparkling Meghan VanArsdalen) is a Cambridge academic specializing in quantum mechanics and astrophysics whose disarming lack-of-filter is as charming as it is blunt. Roland (a shaggy, inviting Forrest Hejkal) is a beekeeper whose awkwardness in life and love yields to a compelling and heartbreaking loyalty as the piece progresses.

I dare not spoil any of the play’s twists and turns – and there are a few – but suffice it to say that Constellations applies string theory, multiversal philosophy, and the random/structured elegance of bouncing atomic particles to the seeming mundanity of daily living. If you’ve ever wondered how crossing the street five minutes later or using a harsher tone of voice in one conversation might impact the trajectory of your fate, this is the play for you. Similar territory has certainly been covered in any number of comic books, Twilight Zone episodes, and fantasy films (Sliding Doors, The Butterfly Effect, etc.) but never, that I can recall, in the guise of a two-person play.

Structurally, the piece repeats short scenic episodes, with a minor tweak each time – a shift in dialogue, a change in tone, a switch in timing – to reveal how different eventualities may work out for the couple. The production helps mark the break between each episode with a quick flash of light and sometimes a shift in hue. (I’m color blind, so I might have missed any more subtle lighting indicators.) There are interstitial, nebulous, ominous spoken-word exchanges between the two characters as well (think Greek chorus by way Stephen Hawking … for lack of a better description) that hint at an inevitable dark turn in their lives.

The respective occupations of each character underpin the play’s philosophy and help explain what might otherwise be confusing to the casual viewer. Marianne offers a giddy take on the exciting prospect of living in a “multiverse” where each decision we make creates another “branched world,” parallel versions of ourselves living out vastly different lives just because we chose one breakfast cereal over another. Roland’s beekeeping becomes a conflicting yet complementary metaphor for the finite nature of life, the ordered but surreal nature of community, and how our impending mortality sweetens/sours our daily acts. There is a particularly riotous sequence, beautifully played by the two leads, wherein Roland uses some fairly grotesque imagery from the mating habits of bees to offer Meghan a cumbersome but altogether winning marriage proposal.

The production is aided and abetted by economical set, sound, and lighting design (by Hejkal, Diane Hill, and Daniel C. Walker respectively) that evokes a dreamlike inner/outer life through bioluminous hues and a repetition of hexagons that evoke bee hives, human DNA, covalent structures, and outer space itself.

Any quibbles with the production are quite minor and will likely resolve after the jitters of opening night. A few sound and music cues were a bit too hushed; some Midwestern cadences (rarely) slipped into the very British dialogue; and the two leads, dripping in chemistry, had an initial physical stiffness that could be chalked up to the awkwardness of their characters’ burgeoning romance but read on opening night as being a bit uncertain how to fill the performance space.

I will also note that I had the joy of sitting with a group of students who were quite taken with the performance and with the play itself. I’m sure some fuddy duddies nearby were lightly annoyed at the unrestrained vocal responses given by these young people as the story revealed itself. I, for one, was delighted. It is a rare treat to watch a new audience discover its love of theatre and to have honest, visceral reactions to what they are observing. That is what theatre has always been about … and always should be about.

Constellations is a rare treat, well-timed with Valentine’s Day just peeking around the corner – a thinking person’s romantic comedy about reality and consequence. The direction by Milarch is pitch perfect, capturing the nuances of multiple variations on a theme and making easy-to-follow and deeply affecting what, in less capable hands, could have been a muddled mess. Yet, it is the stars of Constellations (pun intended) who make this must-see entertainment. Van Arsdalen and Hejkal give as good as they get, presenting beautifully flawed, profoundly moving characterizations through a swirl of could-have-been, should-have-been, and might-have-been moments in time. Together they are a revelation.

Constellations runs from January 26 through February 18 at Theatre Nova, 410 W. Huron St., Ann Arbor, MI 48103. Tickets: www.theatrenova.org or 734-635-8450.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Wilde Awards 2017: If only I had Wink Martindale’s career …


Well, the 2017 Wilde Awards Ceremony is in the history books. And a truly special night celebrating the best of Michigan theatre is over … for another 365 days.

As a kid, I was obsessed with game shows and awards ceremonies, so to suggest that co-hosting last night with EncoreMichigan’s David Kiley was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is no hyperbole. And more than a little dorky. If only I had Wink Martindale’s career.

I was humbled to be amongst such theatrical and critical talent last night, and to see so many personal friends receive well-deserved recognition last night affirmed that good people who work hard do earn the spoils. And my buddies still spoke to me after the show was over. #winning

Full list of winners and additional coverage here.



Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

Encore Michigan photos by Richard Rupp

 

“It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Theatre Nova’s Michigan premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists

K. Edmonds and Melissa Beckwith; Diane Hill in foreground. [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page.]

“Sigh. Gasp. Retort. Sometimes I say them, instead of doing them.”  – The Revolutionists’ Marie Antoinette (a sparkling, scene-stealing anarchic aristocrat in the delightfully daffy hands of Melissa Beckwith)

 

In a genius bit of cross-promotion, the Huron Valley Humane Society (which is as much animal advocacy organization as top rate animal shelter) partnered with Theatre Nova to hold (on August 24) a benefit preview of Theatre Nova’s latest offering The Revolutionists by Lauren Gunderson – a play as much about finding your voice in collaboration and commiseration with like-minded individuals facing the same wall of apathy, antipathy, and alienation as it is a time-bound period piece exploring the exigencies of the French Revolution.

(Needless to say, the packed house of Greater Ann Arbor animal advocates left the theatre fired up, galvanized, and inspired.)

Yours truly, Penny Yohn, and Kim Elizabeth Johnson enjoying the pre-show reception

Like Clutter, another entry this season at Theatre Nova, The Revolutionists is both memory play and call-to-action with a nice slathering of meta-absurdity across its surface. Playwright Gunderson brings together four women (some historical figures, some composites) in one small room at the height of France’s Reign of Terror to discuss their truths, their narratives, their plights as free-thinking women in a society that seeks revolution and equity but not when it comes to the distaff side of society. Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Literally. (Bernie Bros, anyone? Too soon?)

The aforementioned Marie Antoinette, Caribbean revolutionary Marianne Angelle (a grounded, heartbreaking, and damn funny K. Edmonds), and Jean-Paul Marat’s assassin Charlotte Corday (a fiery, spiky, compelling Sara Rose) find themselves in the chambers of playwright Olympe De Gouges (a fabulously neurotic Diane Hill … channeling just a hint of Hillary’s steely resolve?), seeking a writer to help them finish their stories. It is unlikely that these women would have ever interacted IRL (“in real life,” as the kids say), but Gunderson has great fun imagining what might have transpired. For example, she rehabilitates and humanizes Antoinette as a 1% victim of misunderstood and misrepresented intention (the heroine of Stephen Schwartz’ classic ditty “Meadowlark” if played by Carol Kane), never quite letting her off the hook for her tone-deaf excess. It’s a marvelous hat trick, aided and abetted by Beckwith’s revelatory performance.

Director David Wolber has stacked the deck with a to-die-for cast (in fact, most of them do meet the guillotine at some point – or multiple points – during the show), and he wisely let’s them run like hell with their roles, shaping and pacing the narrative for maximum funny and maximum heartache.

K. Edmonds and Sara Rose [Photo from Theatre Nova’s Facebook page]

The challenges facing these women in 1793 aren’t terribly different from those facing women in 2017, and that’s a damn shame. The language is purposefully anachronistic, and Wolber’s staging – coupled with the dreamlike design of Daniel C. Walker (lighting), Carla Milarch (sound … seriously, download right now the equally anachronistic, breathtaking pop songs by French group L.E.J. which are used interstitially and at intermission), and Forrest Hejkal (set, costumes, props, hair) – smartly positions the play as an allegorical comic nightmare, cautioning us that history sure as hell repeats itself. As Cordray warns her compatriots at a moment when they seem to be sliding into fearful ambivalence and losing their collective moral compass, “It’s called the Reign of Terror, not the Reign of Agree-to-Disagree.” Touché.

The Revolutionists runs at Theatre Nova through September 17. Don’t miss it. Tickets at www.TheatreNOVA.org

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Yours truly with Kim Elizabeth Johnson

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language