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REVIEW: Constellations (Jungle Theater)

Ron Menzel and Anna Sundberg in the Jungle Theater’s production of Constellations. Photo by Dan Norman.

Nick Payne’s drama Constellations, which opened Friday at the Jungle Theater, is a play with a very smart script, an engaging concept, and challenging execution requirements. It’s the type of show whose power and thought-provoking delivery should make season ticket holders at the Jungle very pleased with Sarah Rasmussen’s artistic leadership.

Anna Sundberg as Marianne in Constellations.
Anna Sundberg as Marianne in Constellations. Photo by Dan Norman.

The idea of playing out multiple possibilities and iterations of a scene is an engaging one – witness, for example, the 1998 film Sliding Doors, or the titular pivot point of the musical If/Then. Both of those works follow essentially parallel narratives, where one turning point spins out two different versions of the story. Constellations has far more than that, often with identical dialogue delivered in different ways, with both subtle and overt changes in impact. By the time some of the first scenes come back at the end of the evening, new context makes them come back entirely differently. This requires a pair of very skilled and versatile actors, a demand to which Anna Sundberg (Marianne) and Ron Menzel (Roland) rise.

Roland (Ron Menzel) in Constellations.
Ron Menzel as Roland in Constellations. Photo by Dan Norman.
It’s very easy to imagine this going awry – the touring production of If/Then had some intelligibility issues with just two versions of the narrative – but Gary Gisselman’s direction and the technical cues slice through this. You might go back and rethink what some scenes mean later, but it’s always clear when there’s been a change.Near the start of The Glass Menagerie, Tom famously describes the drama to come by stating, “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Much could be said of Constellations as well, except that the acting is incredibly realistic – it’s the seeing the unfolding possibilities and variants that we don’t normally get to enjoy. Whether or not there is a “true” narrative within these forks and possibilities isn’t actually important – the journey through them is plenty enjoyable in and of itself. This play could stand to be much longer than it is with this talented cast and direction, but the 85 minutes pass quickly and are a full evening in their own right.

Constellations plays through May 29 at the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis.

Basil Considine