Sparkling “Constellations” at the Jungle Theater

A bit of initial confusion seems acceptable at the onset of Nick Payne’s play about a pair of lovers and the divergent paths their relationship, and lives, take. Marianne (Anna Sundberg) and Roland (Ron Menzel) meet. And meet again. And again. The first few encounters end in unsatisfying ways, with missed connections, only for the scene to reboot several times until a spark of romance takes hold.

For the rest of the evening, scenes stop, re-start, fragment, and circle back on one another with the logic either of a homespun, roads-not-taken point of view or a wholehearted embrace of the multiverse theory suggested by theoretical physics as underpinning the slippery texture of reality and spacetime. Take your pick, really. Either one works, and the show nicely evokes that unspoken current behind many of our days, when we realize that a stray word here, a small decision there, might have landed us in a very different place.

It’s possible that Constellations could be regarded as too abstract, or disengaged from the investment linear narrative provides, but I don’t really buy that. One good parallel to what works here is a composition such as Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a vastly influential work that combined melodies and pulses at different tempos with intertwined results that created something profoundly evocative out of what could have been bloodless. Stripping out moments of a long relationship and replaying them in varying combinations might sound like a better exercise than viewing experience, but for me the opposite was more or less true.

Sundberg and Menzel deserve much of the credit for this (Gary Gisselman directs); working with understatement but precision, they depict the contours of infidelities, illness, and goofy moments with convincing heart, and admirably shy away from over-working moments that might have been tempting to mine for conventional payoffs that wouldn’t have been earned or appropriate. And Kate Sutton-Johnson’s set is nicely intergalactic, shimmering and slightly frightening yet visually thrumming with strings and cords that suggest both abstract theory as well as the music of the spheres. 

Having logged some time earlier this week discussing divergent realities, how many of them might exist at once, and the impossibility of knowing what path one is on until lights flicker in the rear-view mirror, I was enthralled. Here’s a show about possibility, albeit in ways one rarely associates with the word.

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.