I ’ll admit, I’m a romantic. Beneath this hardened exterior, there is a soft, gooey, alternate persona that loves romantic comedies and long walks in the rain. And so “Constellations,” a play performed by Philaletheis in the Mug from Mar. 3 through 5, was right up my alley.
A story depicting two star-crossed lovers traversing time and space to be together and suffering through many bumps and missed connections along the way, “Constellations” was certainly not one for me to miss. As the two performers took their final bows, I and others were left to wipe away a tear, for together we had experienced something more than your typical romantic comedy drama (or rom-com-dram for short).
Written by Nick Hale and first performed on Broadway in the 2015 season starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, the two-person play was discovered by Isabel Furman ’19 when searching for a project for the semester along with co-star and collaborator Jack Schrader ’17. Furman recalled: “Jack and I knew we wanted to do a show together where both of us were acting. Really, the process of finding ‘Constellations’ was just about researching two-person plays—but the second I found it, I knew we had to do it.”
Schrader too remembers how he instantly knew “Constellations” was perfect for the duo and stated, “After deciding that we wanted to do a show together, Isabel came to me with the play, and I fell in love with the contrast between the simplicity of its narrative and the complexity of its structure.” It was clearly the perfect choice; as Schrader put, “It had to be ‘Constellations.’”
Perhaps the most unique and intriguing element of the play is its story structure. “Constellations” explores the evolution of a (mostly) romantic relationship between characters Roland and Marianne across different parallel universes, as their actions and choices bring about distinct consequences and carry them down a variety of paths. Multiple scenarios exist simultaneously within a single scene, and a simple chord sound effect is used to cue both actor and audience of a change in time and/or place.
Schrader was fascinated by the possibilities of this structure and elaborated, “It’s really just a basic love story, but by pursuing all potential avenues that the relationship(s) could take, the play explores all of the what-ifs that can exist between two people by creating multiple universes.”
Furman agreed and was particularly interested in the possibilities for character exploration: “Each scene, and each rendition and reiteration of a scene, brought us deeper and deeper into who these characters were as people. And to me, that made it a really incredible opportunity for in-depth character study.”
With the addition of two designers, Lukas Sarnow ’17 and Joe Metcalf ’17, “Constellations” only required a four-person production team. As Furman explained, “The play’s intimacy didn’t necessitate a huge production team. It could be as simple as two people exploring a relationship in a space. And that’s kind of what it was.”
Additionally, Furman described how the smaller scale facilitated a kind of in-the-moment communication: “Every decision was in reaction to and within the framework of the characters and the characters’ relationship. And if anything came across, it needed to be that—that the world that we were constructing was always for and about them and their life together.”
This attention to intimacy and character certainly came across to audience member Clare Reynders ’19 who recalled, “The minimalist staging in the Mug really showcased each little change in the story and immersed me in the show.” Reynders was adamant in her enjoyment of the piece: “It was definitely a tear-jerker, but I loved every minute!”
Readers may know that in a few weeks time there will be an entirely different production of “Constellations” going up in the Shiva Theater. The team of this past production is excited to see the interpretation by their fellow students. As Schrader explained, “They are focusing more on technical aspects of the show, have a larger team and seem to have a grander vision for the story…I’m very excited to see what they do with it!”
To distinguish their production, Schrader described, the team wished to focus less on scale in order “to tell our story through its small moments.” Schrader elaborated: “We wanted to tell stories with body language, movement, facial reactions and other small gestures. In doing that, we stripped away a lot of other aspects of classic theatre, opting for a simple and malleable set, basic costumes and relatively simple lighting and sound. We wanted to highlight these characters and their relationships, and focused on how each could embody the changes in universes throughout the rehearsal process.”
In the final moments of the play, Roland and Marianne silently string up a swath of fairy lights from the ceiling, smiling joyfully and working together as a pre-recorded rendition of a tragic scene—happening in a different time and place—plays over the Mug sound system. The simplicity of the moment, along with the knowledge of the winding and tumultuous journey that came before, made for a heartbreaking conclusion to a wonderfully strange play.
Furman hopes that, by the end, audiences felt this connection, and she recalled, “I hope the audience felt how close everything was, and in that, how inextricably connected, too.” It is truly an emotional and dazzling ride, as Schrader remembered: “To be able to experience such joy one second and then such sorrow the next was such an exciting experience for me. So if I could bring the audience along for even just a little of that journey, I’d be very happy.”