Review: Constellations, by Nick Payne - Axiom Repertory Theatre, Redding, CA

On Thursday night, I had the absolute fortune and pleasure of attending the opening night performance of Axiom Repertory Theatre's production of Constellations, written by British playwright Nick Payne, and masterfully directed by John Truitt, (Executive Director of Viva Downtown, Redding), stage managed by Tammy Jones, and performed by Eilyne Tracy and Joshua Wright. I was so engaged with the production that I returned last night for another viewing.

A verbal or written description of the play’s plot quickly becomes intellectually convoluted and contrived: A contemporary ontological play, in which Payne serves us two delicious anti-heroes (lovers, strangers, beings, energies, particles) that navigate the omnipresent multiverse of realities and possibilities that exist between them in a timeless dimension of neither here nor there, then or now. Something we can all relate to right? *Insert eye roll at pretentious playwright here*

But upon watching! Watching?!—Nay, experiencing!—true to the artistic form and function of live theatre—this powerhouse team (including playwright, Payne) reminds us that phenomenal theatre clings to a desperation that denies the story’s existence anywhere other than in front of a live audience. Anyone that has had the opportunity to work with John Truitt as a director will tell you is familiar with three emphasized rules he lives by and stresses to his actors: 1) You must be seen 2) You must be heard and 3) Listen! Acting is reacting. It’s only fitting that this production begs all three of its audience: See it. Hear it. Listen. React!

Constellations’ protagonists and anti-heroes, Maryanne (a Cambridge theoretical physicist) and Roland (a full time bee keeper) play out the infinite possibilities and lifetimes of their existence. Might a single word spoken, or unspoken, alter the course of one’s life? On the one hand, talk is cheap and verbal communication has its limits when it comes to effecting change or sating many human appetites. On the other, the power of language shouldn’t be underestimated. Not all chatter is hot air or, in Shakespeare’s parlance, “mere wind.” But he also demonstrates its potential by cleverly arguing that a slight variation in word choice or a subtle change of inflection can have major, perhaps even cosmological, repercussions.

Whether he's directing a main stage musical at Redding's own historic Cascade Theatre (Mama Mia, and the upcoming Elf the Musical!) or an intimate and minimal “black box” stage play in Old City Hall (Axiom's 2018 A Dolls House II), John Truitt is a master at clearly defining the boundaries of the performance space (stripping his productions of anything extraneous, distracting or unsupported by the evidence in the script) all the while directing a show that has momentum and dynamics. I won’t lie, I have long been a swooning fan-girl of John Truitt’s direction for his signature production design and approach: Like a mischievous child left alone with a bare stage and a honey dipper, John tastefully drizzles the raw and viscous talent of his actors into this delicious production. The blocking was flawless, well thought out, unforced, deliberately repetitive without feeling predictable, choreographed or tired. And of course none of this could have been executed more flawlessly than by leads, Eilyne Tracy and Joshua Wright.

If John is the honey dipper, our two actors, Tracy and Wright, are the sweet stuff. With the beautifully clever dialogue and whole characters (and alternate dimensions for that matter!), it follows that only a talented and experienced actor can pull off Payne’s play. No doubt with invaluable assistance from Truitt, Tracy and Wright are terrific. They never miss a beat. They’ve crafted observant and well-defined characters and have paired the smartly repetitive words with a literal and figurative dance through the infinite cosmos.

What makes their performances especially fascinating to witness is that the chemistry between the two characters is not obvious at the outset. In the beginning, Marianne and Roland don’t seem destined for one another, either as co-universe builders or destroyers. Their compatibility is earned. Their connection builds gradually, no matter how one defines time, flowering into a formidable and moving whole. These two performers, and hence these two characters, certainly belong together in a single universe, or, if you prefer, in an ever-expanding set of worlds that they create and demolish during every performance.

With the production assistance of Tammy Jones (Production Manager/“Boss Lady”) and Cole Cassel running lights and sound, this is a production that can’t be missed. My only regret is not writing this review earlier to get word out sooner. Perhaps there’s comfort in knowing that in some multiverse or time line everyone has, is, and will always have the opportunity to see this deliciously sweet and thought-provoking production. My bee keeper veil goes off to Axiom Repertory Theatre, John Truitt, and the entire production team!

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Redding, Shasta County 96001

©2019 by Jess Fletcher Wiechman.