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.

“Adversaries in commerce” – Joy and The Big Short

"Joyfilmposter" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg#/media/File:Joyfilmposter.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Adversaries in commerce” is a phrase as recurrent in David O. Russell’s latest opus Joy as the falling snow from the film’s advertising materials (posters, trailers, promotional clips – see, left, over there?). The film, which offers an allegorically fictionalized take on the biography of “Miracle Mop” inventor and QVC/Home Shopping Network luminary Joy Mangano, wears a comfortable Dickensian/It’s a Wonderful Life vibe, subtly marrying the holiday-centric themes of merchandise-obsessed America, familial love as rampant dysfunction, and the ebb and flow of seasonally-induced introspection.

Joy details the trials and tribulations of its titular hero, a person with an agile and inventive mind, finding herself stymied by a motley assemblage of “adversaries” (and allies) in “commerce,” many of whom arrive in the guise of earnest or envious (or both) family members. Joy sees commercial opportunities in the mundane – a reflective, choke-free flea-collar here, a hands-free mop there – but the patriarchal world she inhabits marginalizes her gifts while simultaneously pirating her ingenuity. Tale as old as time …

Jennifer Lawrence, joining Russell for their third collaboration after her Oscar win in his Silver Linings Playbook and her nomination for his American Hustle, is utterly transfixing in her most believable turn to date. The film’s and Lawrence’s chief gift is how normal all the abnormal seems; Lawrence (and, by extension, the audience) lives Joy’s life, finding laughter and poignancy and tears where all of us find those things:  family gatherings, business meetings, arguments with spouses, reading a story to our children, trying to convince a stranger to take a chance on an idea.

Some may (and will) argue with me, but this is the most feminist set of cinematic ideas to come down the pike in a while. Yes, Joy is inventing a mop, a symbol to some of domestic oppression, but, in the act of transforming its utility, she reclaims this symbol as her own. Her journey to get her thoughtfully designed functionality in the hands of other like-minded consumers becomes a hero’s quest, tilting at male-dominated windmills of finance, retail, media, manufacturing, and legal contracts. It’s not a showy role. Her turns in Silver Linings or American Hustle gave her many more cracked P.O.V. tics with which to play, but, in this film, Lawrence is all the better for Joy’s absence of quirk.

The surety with which Joy moves through life can seem nebulous at times. We are introduced to her as a little girl who empirically states that “I don’t need a prince.” That is the constant in her life, but she isn’t a volatile trail blazer either. She is a Valedictorian with a caretaker’s spirit, leveraging the strength (and madness) of the family and friends and opposition around her, quietly and calmly observing the world as it is and periodically dashing forth to change how it could be. It’s a masterful, nuanced performance.

Lawrence is aided and abetted by what is quickly becoming Russell’s version of Orson Welles’ Mercury Players, a stellar repertory supporting cast that includes Russell vets Robert DeNiro as Joy’s time-warped fiend of a father, Bradley Cooper as a slick television producer with a heart of gold, and Elisabeth Rohm as Joy’s meddlesome sibling rival, alongside newcomers Virginia Madsen as Joy’s sparkling kook of a soap opera obsessed mom, Diane Ladd as Joy’s fairy godmother/grandmother, Isabella Rossellini as DeNiro’s moneyed girlfriend and Joy’s snake-skinned benefactor, Dascha Polanco as Joy’s steadfast pal and confidante, and Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s charming ex-husband and trusted consigliere. Susan Lucci and Donna Mills even pop up in a couple of brilliantly gaga cameos.

My husband John says that his test of a good film is if it “takes him somewhere” and makes him feel as if he is there in that place and time, living the moments with the characters onscreen. I mentioned this to my parents as we were leaving the theatre, and we all agreed that, by that criteria, this is a perfect film.

"The Big Short teaser poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg#/media/File:The_Big_Short_teaser_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Alas, we were less enamored of Joy‘s Christmas 2015 box office “adversary in commerce” The Big Short, equally an ensemble piece packed with star power but falling far short (pun intended) of Joy‘s exquisite music box pathos. The Big Short, directed by Adam McKay (Anchorman, Talladega Nights) from the book by Michael Lewis, fancies itself a bold hybrid of Ocean’s Eleven‘s ring-a-ding boy band swagger and Michael Moore’s progressively incendiary documentarian instincts.

Unfortunately, it’s neither. Jennifer Lawrence has more swagger in one confrontation with some misogynistic QVC middle managers, than Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Finn Wittrock, or John Magaro manage collectively against monolithic Wall Street through the entirety of The Big Short. (Hamish Linklater, Rafe Spall, and Jeremy Strong as Carell’s bullpen of hedge-fund managing second bananas do have some firecracker moments, but they are few and far between.) Melissa Leo puts in a sharp appearance as a ratings agency employee who happily, if improbably, exposes the game afoot when even the guardians at the gate will play for pay.

The film attempts to explicate for us common folk the ins and outs of the housing market collapse in 2008. McKay has been on record as saying this is the most important story of our time and that his film will make crystal clear the who, what, how, and why so that any audience member will understand what transpired. Wrong.

McKay, alongside co-screenwriter Charles Randolph, has given us Wolf of Wall Street-lite, with a mess of characters messily drawn, offering the sketchiest of backgrounds. Hey, Christian Bale’s former MD Michael Burry is a financial savant. Know why? ‘Cause he wears no shoes and plays the air drums while listening to death metal in his rent-by-the-hour office. Oh, Steve Carell’s Mark Baum lost a brother to suicide so he’s all angst-ridden now, wanting to topple the very financial system that still provides his daily income … so he’s noble, but broken. Get it? Brad Pitt’s Ben Rickert gave up this seedy Wall Street live for the noble world of organic gardening – see, he’s going to make something … from the earth. And on and on.

Each character shows up like they are going to enter the road race from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World without any of the wit, the charm, or, heaven help us, the plot.

McKay does little to ground us in why we should care about any of this, other then some clunky asides that are meant to be Funny or Die! camp, randomly inserting celebrities like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath (fire your agent, Robbie!), Anthony Bourdain making fish chowder, or Selena Gomez at a roulette wheel. In that, “aren’t we in-crowd cute?” way, these Fantasy Island castaways turn to the camera, ostensibly simplify some complex economic concept (which ends up more confusing than ever), wink, and then turn back to whatever insipid task before them. It just doesn’t work. And it’s annoying. McKay seems to want it both ways: take this topic very seriously, but don’t mind while we make fun of said topic like sophomoric smart asses.

There was an interesting film here. This isn’t it. I’m not sure McKay’s politics got in the way of making a focused, coherent film, as I’m not sure after watching The Big Short what those politics might even be. Only Ryan Gosling and, to a lesser degree, Christian Bale escape unscathed.

Gosling and Bale seem like they are in another movie entirely (probably once they realized the script was an incoherent mess, they started dog paddling for any port in the storm). Gosling sparkles as the film’s narrator, embracing his fourth-wall-breaking conceit with wry, near-Shakespearean aplomb. He’s a hoot to watch. Bale is less delightful but an oddly thundering presence, a man-child thumbing his nose at a financial system (and likely a film) that ultimately doesn’t appreciate (nor deserve) his superhuman talents.

Like Joy, there was something to be said in The Big Short about a society that worships the almighty dollar above integrity, kindness, and humanity. Where Joy weaves an inspiring yet delicate fable of victory over a cruel and unkind system, The Big Short becomes mired in its own smug condescension, victim to the very machine it aims to skewer.

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Enjoy these cards (handmade by my dad Don Sexton) and these photos of us enjoying the whimsical presents given by my mom Susie Sexton. We had such a wonderful holiday weekend – I hope you did too!

1075482_1101630499869874_3458523668734951867_o 10347247_1101631396536451_578452272789064074_n 10460737_1101631099869814_5795612932819823792_n 10603827_1101631383203119_8882361360287717151_o 10636580_1101630736536517_1679035790844459402_o 10644666_1101630606536530_3271507750315325249_o 12401895_1101631633203094_4161663296750666007_o Roy Card 1 Roy Card 2

 

 

 

 

Card by Don Sexton

Card by Don Sexton

 

 

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.

Roy Card 5