by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 24, 2017


A beekeeper and a cosmologist meet at a barbeque. The cosmologist opens the conversation with a funny gambit; the reason humans can't lick the tips of their elbows is because if they did, they'd know the secrets of the universe. The award-winning play "Constellations" opens with this meeting of the beekeeper and cosmologist and spends the rest of the night exploring their infinite permutations.

Based on the hypothesis that we exist not in a universe but in a multiverse, that we exist severally in parallel universes, "Constellations" lays out the strands of those concurrent paths for Marianne and Roland, and provides a sampling of their potential multitudes.

Like our internal recordings of awkward conversations give us the chance to say something witty instead of staring blankly, the repeated conversations in "Constellations" rolls back to an earlier place in the scene or the play, spinning out another possible direction the characters' choices could take them.

Sometimes fully examined, others just a nuanced alteration, these new lines depict multiple different realities for the characters. It's like real-time choose-your own adventure with dialogue rewind, except the characters don't choose. According to the cosmologist, these different realities exist simultaneously, and we are but particles moving through a predetermined path.

It would be easy to get lost in the narrative potential of this scientific premise, but playwright Nick Payne has a light touch with this dense theory. He tells their story out of linear time, but holds the audience in suspense through interrupted lines of dialogue that are brought to fruition many scenes later. The Rolands and Mariannes in these parallel universes are at once identical and fundamentally different from each other, leading to different plots, but Payne focuses on the end point, the inevitable conclusion of the relationship in but one of the possible universes.

The set design by Jason Sherwood for this production is a marvel, comprising a grid that swoops up toward the rafters and down into the footlights, arcing upstage in the middle, so that the actors are walking on a three-dimensional depiction of folding time.

On this backdrop, all possible conversations take place, so the work of shifting into another universe is left to the actors; in this, Portland stage veteran Dana Greene as Marianne and Silas Weir Mitchell, recently seen in "Three Days of Rain" at PCS and, famously, from TV's "Grimm," give us appropriately shifted personalities.

It takes skill to make these subtle shifts as quickly as this play demands; like actors in improv comedy, Weir and Greene take each change in stride. In the hands of such capable actors, the play dances through its complex premise with energy and purpose.

For a play based on theoretical physics, "Constellations" twinkles with romance. It is the realization of the daydream about "what if"; what if I had chosen Door #2 instead of Door #1? In a parallel universe, would my love and I still be together? What would I do if I found out I was dying? Would I make the same choices that brought me to this point?

One line of dialogue made me breathless; "Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules." That I can't explain quite why is part of the magic of this show; its quirky, out-of-joint delivery, its reliance on sketchy interpretation of quantum physics, its gentle depiction of the irresistible drawing together of two molecules who can't resist each other's particles.

Did I want more beekeeping science? You bet. That Roland is a beekeeper is negligible to the plot, and I was hoping to learn some interplay of the science of bees and quantum physics, but this is a small disappointment. For a lovely spring evening of entertainment, see "Constellations" with someone you love.

"Constellations" runs through June 11 at Portland Center Stage at the Armory, 128 NW Eleventh Ave, Portland OR 9720. For tickets and information, call 503-445-3700 or go to

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.