Save the time a man likened me to his appendix, “Do you know why it’s impossible to lick your elbows?” is the strangest pickup line I’ve ever heard. And yet, it’s the one Marianne uses on Roland in the opening of “Constellations,” a 2012 play written by Nick Payne, produced by student theater group Deep End APO and directed by Aaron C. Lauby ’19.
“Constellations” was performed in the Pause on Thursday, March 30 and Friday, March 31. The play drew a modest crowd of students and faculty and offered a haunting perspective on relationships and mortality that showcased the considerable talents of the students involved.
The two person show starred Chaz Mayo ’18 as Roland, a beekeeper, and Amy Trunt ’17 as Marianne, a physicist at Cambridge University. Roland and Marianne explain multiverse theory – which states that every decision that you have ever or never made exists somewhere in a parallel universe – by personifying a number of classic relationship “what ifs:” What if I had said hello? What if I had invited him up? What if I hadn’t cheated? The result is a maze of emotional scenes that either make or break Roland and Marianne’s relationship.
The story begins with the characters’ first encounter and developing relationship, orienting the audience in the constellation of possible realities for Roland and Marianne. The second half of the play lingers on the more serious issue of Marianne’s brain tumor. Trunt brilliantly portrayed the battle between helplessness and hope over losing control of her mind, while Mayo maneuvered between being angry, sad and betrayed by the diagnosis of his partner in a way that was all too real. But, because we watched the story unfold in the multi-verse and not on the timeline of a traditional narrative, the audience didn’t know about the grade 4 tumor until the very end.
The focus on characterization over plot makes the story a bit confusing, but also allows it to center around the ever changing emotions and personalities that accompany two people dealing with a terminal illness. In the end, Marianne asks for a physician-assisted suicide, and leaves the audience to question the nature of life and death, obligation and humankind’s obsession over time.
The unique narrative style asked a lot of the actors, who moved between sobbing over a cancer diagnosis one minute to celebrating a benign tumor the next.
According to Trunt, the biggest challenge was memorizing the order of the very similar scenes.
“We determined that each set of vignettes takes place in a specific locale, but each scene within a set leads up to the final scene which we called the ‘most honest’ of the scenes. Since the text of the scenes are often very similar, early on it was very easy to switch the order of a scene or skip one altogether,” Trunt said. “Chaz ended up making a sort of quick guide to each set of scenes; they each had a name depending on the outcome, and that was really helpful.”
The production had only eight rehearsals before debuting, so the preparation for the play was fairly rushed.
“We were supported the entire way by Berit Niederluecke and Paige Marshall, our stage managers, and our designers, Laura Berge, Zach Besky and Maggie Meyer. I respect each and every one of them for so many reasons, and I feel so grateful to have had this experience with them,” Trunt said. “Putting up as complex a production as this in only eight rehearsals is something to be proud of.”
The set was minimal, consisting of a few light bulbs dangling from the ceiling and hooks that held jackets and water bottles, as well as a fold-out futon that served as a couch and a bed which the actors repositioned to fit each different scene.
While the talents of Mayo and Trunt created an engaging story, there were a few moments that took audience members out of the world of the play. For one, Payne’s script is peppered with noticeably British words and phrases, which were slightly jarring coming from the actors’ native American accents. There were also a few flubbed lines, a shoe that was accidentally flung into the audience and one of our phones crashing loudly on to the floor in the middle of a particularly sad scene.
But despite these minor quibbles, the play ultimately succeeded in telling a wrenchingly bittersweet story. The moments of comedy were particularly strong, notably Mayo’s delivery of Roland’s awkward but heartfelt proposal letter. Universe after parallel universe shows Marianne reject him, but finally, she accepts.
“When she finally says yes, though, that moment is so sweet and charming,” Trunt said. “I could almost feel the room light up as the audience took in that moment with us.”