BLUE HILL — In the past decade or so, the concept of multiple universes and non-linear time has enjoyed increasing popularity.
It was once the province of theoretical physicists and other science geeks, and, perhaps, the occasional comic book — remember Superman’s “Bizarro World”? These days, pop culture and highbrow movies, TV dramas and novels for both adults and children have used the idea that we are not wandering alone in the vastness of space as a major premise of their stories.
Many of these suggest that not only are there multiple peopled universes but that they travel a parallel path to the one we know.
Such is the premise of Nick Payne’s intriguing and provocative play “Constellations,” now in rehearsal at that New Surry Theatre for a Feb. 14 opening.
The play presents not only multiple universes, but multiple challenges for both the actors, Nina Robinson-Poole and Nathanael Lee, the director, Nina’s mother, Rebecca Poole, and the audience. The events in the play involving the romantic relationship of its two characters Marianna, a cosmological physicist, and Roland, a beekeeper, who meet at a party, do not move along the expected “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc.” linear time frame. Rather, they all happen simultaneously with subtle or sometimes profound alterations of action and emotion each time.
If this sounds like it would make the storyline hard to follow, director Poole acknowledges that a few people, mostly older folks with locked-in expectations about how a theatrical work should progress, walked out of an earlier staged reading of the play.
“But the high school students loved it!” she said at a rehearsal at the Town Hall Theater last weekend. “They understood right away what was happening.”
She says she believes the people who left would have “gotten” it too had they stuck it out a little longer, as the characters in the play eventually explain it all.
She’s absolutely right. My own high school years are long past, and I too found the opening scenes when we first meet Roland and Marianne confusing, but also intriguing enough to want to see where these two would take me; also, it’s my job, so walking out was not an option.
Eventually it became clear that multiple realities are unspooling here, like a large loom with different colored threads, each of which takes the design in a different direction as the fabric is created. I also wondered whose hands were at that loom — the fates, as in Greek mythology or were our characters creating their own random patterns as they reacted to circumstances and one another?
Anyway, it’s all really neat, and thought-provoking, and as soon as you understand you’re dealing with several realities you find you’re emotionally invested in this couple, in all their incarnations — the ones that make you laugh and the ones that break your heart.
This, despite it being relatively early in the rehearsal process, with lots of dropped lines and stops for blocking changes.
“I haven’t known where we are for the last five minutes!” Lee exclaimed at one point. But both he and Robinson-Poole have already become so adept at multiverse jumping that his confusion was undetectable.
Still, it’s no wonder the two actors get lost, from, uh, time to time. Much of their dialogue is repetitive with just slight but important variations .
“On one hand this makes it easier to remember the words,” says Robinson-Poole, “but more challenging to remember when and how to say each version.”
One might think with lines so similar they might be interchangeable, but each one hooks into the next in a specific way in order for the action to move forward. Get it wrong and our couple is doomed to orbit aimlessly over the same territory.
Robinson-Poole describes the emotional quick changes the play demands as a sort of “actors Olympics.”
Rebecca Poole, who has directed a number of NST plays, also has some unaccustomed challenges in this one.
“There are almost no stage directions,” she says. “Different dialogue is written in either plain text, italics or bold, but it is up to us to decide what those represent in terms of emotional emphasis.”
She also says that certain iterations, or to go back to the loom analogy, “threads” need to run true throughout the couple’s interaction, which helps both the actors and the audience find their way.
Also, this is her first time directing a play in the round, on the floor of the hall rather than on the stage.
“I believe this makes it all super intimate,” Poole says. “If we do it right, the audience should feel engaged throughout.”
She concedes that because of this emotional and physical intimacy the play can be exhausting for all involved and she says there is a good reason why the playwright made it only an hour long.
OK, this all may sound really strange and complicated, and it is — not to mention Marianne’s occasional lesson in cosmology and quantum physics. But it is beautifully so, like a, well, like a beautiful tapestry or a handsomely solved mathematical equation It is also edge of your seat thrilling as Marianne and Roland take us along in their travels through time and inner space and what is at heart a poignant boy meets girl romance.
“Constellations” opens at the Town Hall Theater on Friday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m., with other evening performances planned for Feb.15, 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. and a Sunday matinee on Feb. 16 at 3 p.m.
For tickets and information, go to www.newsurrytheatre.org.