Let’s say you happen to be a slightly nerdy guy and meet what might be an interesting woman at a barbeque party. Or maybe you are a young woman, brilliant but awkward, and you meet a nice guy at a barbeque who seems interested. What could come of this? Maybe everything, maybe nothing. He might be married, or perhaps you are. End of story. Or just maybe you meet when you are both single and you start talking, and he finds out you are a theoretical physicist, and you learn he is an urban beekeeper making artisanal honey on his rooftop. What happens next? Well maybe you start seeing each other, fall in love, get married, experience complications, and suddenly find yourself faced with your own mortality.
That’s just one possible scenario among an almost infinite number of others, as I think we can all imagine. All of us, looking back, are aware of how the direction and shape of our lives changed a number of times, from choice, happenstance or destiny. We all live, as Juan Luis Borges said, in a “garden of forking paths,” and at each fork we must take one path which then eliminates any number of other paths, other stories which might have been ours. And we are all aware of these paths not taken, at least dimly glimpsing how different our lives might have been had we missed a turn or taken another fork. Imagine, for a moment what might have happened if Ed and Mary Osborne had found themselves living next door to a country squire rather than a theatregoer when they were stationed in the quaint village of Steeplebumstead many years ago. Instead of taking them into London to see plays, he might have led them out fox hunting or to a sporting event on the village green, and now the university might be landscaping a cricket pitch instead of building a fabulous new theatre. So it goes — or so it might have.
Now briefly entertain a little quantum mechanics — not enough to make your brain hurt, but instead just enough to make a leap without pause to the possibility that there is not one but many universes, and that there is one universe for each of the innumerable paths of your life, and that all of these universes are all present and playing at the same time. As Marianne, the physicist of our play explains, in the quantum realm one might conclude that “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.” Considerations such as these, if you were into quantum cosmology, might lead you into the head spinning intricacies of 11 dimensions and string theory. Or, if you were a young playwright named Nick Payne, it might lead you to writing a play which takes place in a “multiverse” which we would see in London and immediately realize must be done here. I’m quite sure that in one of the universes where we met Nick Payne, as we did, and asked for his permission he said, “righty ho, you are all very special, I love you, and I trust you, so just do it!” But in the one universe we are aware of, he said, very kindly, please contact my agent. And so we did. We were just about the first folks in line, but still had to wait three years until his wonderful play came and went on Broadway. But now, at least now in this universe, we are proud and happy to present the Colorado premiere of Constellations, a play which the New Yorker has called “a singular astonishment.”
As you may have suspected, there’s a lot going on in this play. There are actually only a half dozen real scenes, but each of these is repeated and re‑assembled in different variations. You will find the two characters repeatedly trying to lick their elbows; you will see the beekeeper propose repeatedly (he only gets it right in one of four universes), and you will encounter at least a few alternatives in coming to grips with sudden mortality. There is no absolute linearity here. In Constellations and the multiverse, time does not move like an arrow; instead everything happens at the same time, or perhaps in no time, since at the most basic quantum level of symmetry time is irrelevant, as Marianne labors to explain.
You may not always understand her brief forays into quantum mechanics, but that hardly matters since the play’s many variations allow us to better understand her and her partner Roland. She’s volatile, intellectual, introverted, but given to sudden outbursts. He is patient, loyal and dedicated, and he knows how to cherish and cultivate good honey. Together they are sometimes clumsy, frequently goofy, usually intelligent, and always humane. They and their play are pulsating with possibilities, but in the end Constellations is a simple and classic love story. It finally comes down to two unlikely people finding life and death together. That’s still quite a lot for 70 minutes, but this play is so lapidary, so rich and delicately assembled, that it will shimmer in your hearts long after it disappears into the ether.
Constellations is also, just in case you didn’t know, a play which happens in the theatre, the perfect place for art and physics to meet. Just the other day I read an essay by Dennis Overbye in the science section of the New York Times explaining how the theory of relativity teaches us that “the center of the universe is everywhere and nowhere. It is the present, surrounded by concentric shells of the past” all emanating and expanding from the big bang of 14 million years ago. I think this is yet another way of saying all that we have is the here and now, compounded by information and events of the past. This is also the palpable experience of live theatre, where we are conscious of living in one unique present in one unique universe, existing only just now. If we are lucky we might find, with Marianne and Roland, that this present is both real and mysterious, full of humor, poignancy and grace.