How do you create consistent and compelling characters when the only two characters in the play span a plethora of alternate universes and are different in each? Apparently with ease, or at least that’s how Emma Whitworth and Joseph Willis made it seem in their stellar performances yesterday evening in the Drama Barn. Constellations, directed by Richard Stranks, is a well-presented piece which allows the incredible acting to draw it forward.
While taking your seats, you are also stepping on to the stage space, as the Barn has been reconfigured to be in the round, with the audience on all sides and the stage space in the middle, empty save the two actors locked in a tight embrace. The whole preset is scored by gentle acoustic guitar composed by Robin Datta which is a pleasant accompaniment, the short phrase repeats several times across the preset, a nice nod to the idea of repetition and continuation.
Simplicity is the watchword for this thematically complicated play, no physical set and no props that can’t be slipped into a pocket. What set designer Eliza Martin has done, however, is cover the black walls of the barn with white stars and constellations. By creating the only set to speak of behind the audience, Martin has brought a sense of inclusion to this production. The action of the play really could be happening at any moment in any place and the fact that while watching you can’t help but notice the audience members opposite you against a backdrop of stars means that it has an added dimension of “this could be happening to anyone”.
The language of the tech is clearly established from early on, with fairly unobtrusive washes of light on each scene in a section and each scene divided up by a change of lighting to blue shot through swirl patterned gobos from directly above the stage. The one constant scene which gets longer between each section is punctuated by a blackout on either end, which serves to highlight that regardless of the millions of ways our lives could go, mortality is always certain.
Ultimately, though, it is the lighting that lets this production down. Sometimes the actors reset solely in transition lighting state, but sometimes they are caught still moving when the washes are brought back up. Moreover, the use of a blackout when one character hits another completely shatters the rules that are set up in the rest of the play; if the blackout comes before a certainty, does that mean he hits her in every universe? It takes the edge off an otherwise very poignant message.
Overall, this production translates the meaning of the text incredibly well into its environment. The acting is sublime and convincing and the time flew past with no interval. At no point did the repetition feel, well, repetitious and there were definite tears in the eyes of some audience members.