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.

True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…