Constellations by Nick Payne

Constellations, acted by Edward Harrison and Stephanie Street at the Singapore Repertory Theatre, has a parallel-universe premise built on some very hand-waving “physics”.

The play has just two characters, Marianne and Roland. They appear in a series of short scenes on an empty stage below a light fixture of 100 LED “stars”. The scenes tell the story of one couple, but the two lovers don’t have just one story, they have many differing stories. Sometimes they never get past an awkward hello.

More below about the play and why it was entertaining.

When I realized, very quickly, that the play had a kind of looping structural feature, I thought, Aha! This is like Looper! and Edge of Tomorrow! and Westworld! All those sci-fi plots involve some kind of do-over.

Looper has a bit of time travel: the protagonist is asked to prevent a terrible future, is given the chance to take part in the events that led to it, and thus change the result of those events.

Edge of Tomorrow has a character who repeats the same day each time he dies, and each time he lives the day he makes different choices—choices that bring him closer to reaching his goal.

Westworld has androids who unknowingly perform—over and over—narratives written for them by the human caretakers of a vast amusement park.

Constellations shows us two people living through, multiple times, the same situations with different words, attitudes, and actions. A touch, a tone, or a decision can change how the rest of the story goes. But in each scene, the lovers have no idea that we’ve seen the scene go in a different direction.

I was relieved that the play ended on a high note. The play ran through a wide emotional range, and parts of it were hard to watch.

It’s impossible to say whether the story was a happy or sad one, when all was said and done, because it’s not clear what “all” would mean in this context. It’s open to interpretation.

It’s not even clear whether we are supposed to believe in the oneness or the multiplicity of these characters. There are some similarities in the stories, but also some differences. Asking which are more important is like asking whether the glass is half full or half empty; the answer depends on what point of view you choose to adopt, which is exactly what this Straits Times review says.

The actors performed their parts expertly. Being one of only two people on stage for the whole play must be tiring to begin with, but in addition to being always active, they had to completely switch emotions at each of the frequent scene changes.

Moreover, since some scenes had the same dialogue but had to be acted differently, the actors had to do a lot of preparation even to make sense of the script, they said in a talk after the play. They also said that seeing other actors perform the play had been helpful and yet not, since the performance can and should be individualized by the performers.

I wondered whether as a result of learning and performing the play the actors’ own lives had been affected. Whether they had ever stopped in mid-conversation in real life and said, “Hang on, let me do that bit again with less anger,” or, “Wait, back up—this time I’m going to state my point more forcefully so you’ll pay attention.” But then it occurred to me that learning and performing any play might have that effect on an actor.

Or not.

After all, we only get one chance at first impressions, and we only get one chance at any particular thing we do. We can always try again, of course, but other people will remember what we did before. Our second and third and other tries are like the loops in Westworld, where things aren’t actually exactly the same, not like the loops in Edge of Tomorrow, or Groundhog Day, where the character goes back in time and lives the same exact events again, and the only difference is himself.