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Star-crossed lovers

'Constellations' explores a multitude of romantic possibilities and parallel worlds

Beekeeper Roland meets theoretical physicist Marianne at a backyard barbecue in England. It's sunny. Or, it's raining. They flirt, but he's unavailable. Or she is. Or they barely talk at all. Or, they continue to flirt but then the chemistry fizzles out. Or it doesn't, and they eventually embark on an important, long-term relationship, which leads to marriage. Or not.

In Nick Payne's "Constellations," receiving its regional premiere with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, the world (or worlds, rather), contains infinite timelines and multiverses, each with their own alternate realities and myriad possibilities. Payne's script allows just a few of these moments (and a few of their alternate versions) to play out over the course of the one-act show. With each rendition of each snippet of dialogue, we hear the lines repeated, often verbatim, but with the actors' delivery and director Robert Kelley's staging tweaked slightly, in sometimes-subtle ways, which change the tone and probable ramifications dramatically.

In one scene, Marianne (Carie Kawa) and Roland's (Robert Gilbert) deliveries may be flirtatious and good-natured. In the next, they may bark out the lines bitterly, or be hesitant and shy. To make it all even more mind-bending, some scenes are placed out of chronological (well, what we in this limited reality think of as chronological) order, unraveling what limited plot elements we receive in a mixed-up fashion. After their first meeting, we see snapshots of their lives: Roland and Marianne on dates, on the verge of a break-up, confronting a terrible, devastating blow, reuniting cutely at a ballroom dance class, and considering marriage. Watching these fine actors play with nuance and tone is quite entertaining, as they shift from romantic comedy to tragedy and back again, although in some ways this gimmick seems more of a vehicle for showing off acting skills than fleshing out characters or plot. Regardless, it's fun.

The characters' vocations tie in nicely to their worldviews and conversations. Marianne, as a scientist and professor of cosmology, is in her element when pondering the cosmos and the mysteries of time, explaining elements of string theory, echoes of the Big Bang, gravity and nonlinear concepts of chronology to an intrigued Roland. He, as an earthy, easygoing beekeeper, on the other hand, loves his work harvesting honey and, in one memorable section, ponders the short but intensely purpose-driven life of bees, wishing in some ways human life was more like hive society (or is it already?). The sometimes-couple discusses the idea of free will vs. fate, and the nature of reality. While Roland wonders if -- time and the perception of one reality being an artifice -- there is any point or meaning to anything they do, Marianne counters that the possibility of infinite realities in fact makes each choice they do or do not make (rather, both do and do not make) no less powerful. It's a comfort, in fact, that this timeline is not the only chance. "We have all the time we've always had," she tries to explain, as he laments that their time seems to be running out all too quickly. And even though their lives take different twists and turns, there does seem to be an element of destiny at play as they connect with one another across the universes.

Though in some ways these are big issues, the play is at its best in the small, clever moments and interesting touches. In one scene, for example, Roland mentions his sister, Heather, while in its parallel counterpart, he mentions heather as a suitable plant for his bees. In another scene, the characters suddenly communicate in British Sign Language rather than speaking aloud. Gilbert has a mellow charm and a genuine British accent which, while pleasing, has the unfortunate side effect of making Kawa's not-altogether-convincing accent attempts suffer in comparison, but she gets along well enough. We don't get to know much about them as characters, on the whole, but what we are able to see is enough to get attached to them, and their possibly-star-crossed love affair.

Andrea Bechert's scenic design and Steven Mannshardt's lighting design provide a minimalist but effective and beautiful backdrop to the action. A large, jungle-gym-like matrix of twinkling, pulsing lights is reminiscent of the stars themselves, as well as of neural network and, ever-so-slightly, even of hives and honeycomb. Well-crafted shifts in lighting (and music cues by Cliff Caruthers) help to indicate the numerous timeline changes.

Bees? Parallel universes? England? If you know me, you'll know these topics are right up my alley, so going into it, I was fairly sure I'd enjoy it. Indeed, I did. But even if you don't happen to share these particular interests, chances are, you'll find this engaging romance/thought experiment well worth while. It could make a great outing for a date, although you may find yourself second-guessing everything you say to your partner after -- and wondering how the date went in all its parallel versions, pondering all its infinite possibilities.

What: "Constellations"

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: Through Sept. 17

Cost: $40-$100

Info: Go to TheatreWorks

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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