CONSTELLATIONS - Berkshire Theatre Festival
There’s probably no better example of an “actor’s play” or a play better suited for direction by an actor than CONSTELLATIONS at The Unicorn Theatre on Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus. Directed by actor Gregg Edelman, in his directing debut, and starring husband and wife actors Graham Rowat and Kate Baldwin, the two-hander by British playwright Nick Payne contemplates, with both head and heart, the convolutions of two people falling in love, or not, or someplace in-between.
CONSTELLATIONS works from the head through the character of Marianne, an academic specializing in some esoteric brand of cosmology. She seduces beekeeper Roland with talk about relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory, which moves from flirtatious to humanistic to soul-probing. Payne writes so well he successfully integrates brainy themes like the cosmos and human mortality into his work, although I find these elements of CONSTELLATIONS a tad fey and the least interesting aspect of his play.
The real strength of this coulda-shoulda-woulda love story is from the heart, which gives CONSTELLATIONS its dramatic vigor, especially in the hands of actors as skilled as Rowat and Baldwin. Payne uniquely tells their story through no more than five different “scenes” which repeat multiple times, each time exploring not only a different possibility for the relationship but a different aspect of Marianne’s and Roland’s personality. This entails a sweeping set of shifts in voice, mood, facial expression, tonal inflection, posture and movement across a range of emotions - pain, remorse, guilt, glee, desire, sadness and fear . Rowat and Baldwin maneuver Roland and Marianne alone together, sometimes together alone, through this multifaceted journey with astonishing versatility, impeccable timing and dramatic dexterity. Their performance and the play become one and the same: a missed beat and this tightly constructed 70-minute, one act would quickly deflate.
Fortunate for Rowat and Baldwin to have been teamed with a director who is primarily an actor, for Edelman leaves no fingerprints on their performance. With less confident direction - or with direction from a director who is not an “actor’s director" - their performance would likely not be as elegant as it is. Edelman allows Rowat and Baldwin’s movements on the plain, round stage seem inevitable. Most impressive is his subdued use of the subtlest of lighting design by Alan Edwards to create fluid moods, rather than punctuate abrupt changes in vignettes - no small feat. Two actors at the top of their form working with a fellow actor as sensitive director doesn’t get much better than this.