Review: ‘Constellations’ at The Studio Theatre

Nick Payne’s Constellations embraces String Theory and its multiverses as it takes its intimate, in-the-round, Stage 4 audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride through the courtship, breakup, marriage, and death of Marianne (Lily Balatincz) and Roland (Tom Patterson).

Tom Patterson and Lily Balatincz in Constellations at Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Tom Patterson and Lily Balatincz in Constellations at The Studio Theatre. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

And it makes no difference that String Theory has suffered some serious, discrediting blows in the last few years, or that Constellations’ structure borrows heavily from David Ives’ comic Sure Thing– another two-hander about a chance encounter love affair with a “Take 4!” approach to scene duplication–or that you already suspect how this drama ends soon after it begins.

As played by Lily Balatincz and Tom Patterson, this love between beekeeper and theoretical physicist is as palpable as you are likely to experience anywhere, except of course in real life, if you are lucky enough to encounter that darling other who loves you back with equal warmth and intensity.

You’ve heard Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous line: “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Well, Constellations puts the wisdom of that line to its ultimate test.

Within its tiny, planetarium-like setting, you meet Marianne as she is meeting Roland, and instantly you know they are going to hit it off. Their chemistry is marvelous, and the audience’s voyeurism is downright postmodern. For, as in a planetarium where the visitor observes the workings of the universe in simulacrum, so in Studio’s Stage 4 small arena setting the audience observes the dynamics of wooing and loosing in all their possible outcomes.

Then, within a few minutes of that opening curtain and a sure thing love, we skip the rails and jump forward in time (think Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five), and we see Marianne in a state of distress, as she is no longer able to speak the words she wants to speak, or read, or work, or…. And the pain on Roland’s face tell us that this is most definitely not a good thing.

So when the play jumps back to the beginning of their relationship, we already know the outcome. We experience the joy of love even as we reverberate with the trauma of loss. We might want to ignore that flash of fate, but we cannot.

Lily Balatincz’s Marianne bubbles with life, the kind of life that demands that you love her, which of course only makes the knowledge of her demise that much more unbearable. But you love her anyway.

Tom Patterson’s Roland is so likeable and practical–he’s the kind of beekeeper who, in a pinch, puts his honeycombs into plastic garbage bags–that you want him to be happy no matter what. You know, however, that his fate will not be filled with that kind of happy. His happy will be the ecstatic kind that comes from so much pain to bear.

Both Patterson and Balatincz keep the action crisp, clear, and in the moment, without a hint of pretense. And that’s good, because the play and the space demand no less.

David Muse directed Constellations, and his choice to return this Broadway hit (with a limited two-month run) to an extremely intimate setting was perfect. For that is the play’s strength–raw, authentic, and experiential.

Debra Booth’s set, with lighting by Michael Lincoln and costumes by Brandee Mathies, highlight the absence of barriers between audience and actors.

Tom Patterson and Lily Balatincz. Photo by Igor Dmitry.
Tom Patterson and Lily Balatincz. Photo by Igor Dmitry.

The audience is Marianne and Roland and they are in the audience, and when Marianne sits in the arena right next to an audience member all of us experience her pain (and joy or fear) just as we might a friend who tells us she has but months to live.

To be sure, sometimes the play’s pathos is difficult to take; for unlike a linearly constructed drama where the catharsis erupts at the end, bathing the audience in its purgative anguish, Constellations’ catharsis is extended, and occasionally even heightened when the story returns to Marianne and Roland’s good times. Then, the audience must linger in the grief of loss even as the characters remain ironically unaware of the ill fate that awaits them.

If, at times, you feel the urge to hold Marianne or give Roland a reassuring hug, that’s fine; for by the end of Constellations you’ll realize that in extended communities everywhere there are “Mariannes” and “Rolands” suffering silently through the pain of illness and loss. Give them that hug and that comfort instead.

Then, the true meaning of “Tis better to have loved and loss than never to have loved at all” will be utterly clear. And it won’t have anything to do with String Theory or multiverses or any other branch of theoretical physics.

It will have everything to do with empathy: of giving yourself a chance to embrace the other even as you acknowledge that other’s dying breath.

Constellations is, indeed, a unique experience that should not be missed.

Running Time: 80 minutes without an intermission.

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Constellations plays through March 20, 2016 at Studio Theatre’s Stage 4 – 1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

‘Constellations’ at The Studio Theatre by John Stoltenberg in his column ‘Magic Time!’

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.


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