Playwright Nick Payne's "Constellations" pushes the "what if" questions of love and other human interactions to an extreme, conjuring more than 50 discrete universes in one relationship, and how actions minor or major affect the outcome.
It begins when Roland, a beekeeper, meets Marianne, an awkward, funny quantum physicist at a barbecue.
In some realities, they go on dates and things go well. In another universe, various impediments interfere with the fledgling bond.
Mason Wagner, the director of an upcoming local production, read the script and saw it as a challenge, with its references to string theory and quantum mechanics, within the context of a earthbound, human story that could be produced around Valentine's Day.
"It's basically a love song to free will," Wagner said. "He's saying in the universe we inhabit, free will does exist."
Wagner is the artistic director of BetweenTheLines Productions, an upstart theater company he founded last year.
A recent University of Montana theater graduate, with credits with the Montana Repertory Theatre, the 24-year-old saw it as a matter of creating the work he wanted. He directed a small cast and crew in Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Baker's "The Flick," a four-hour play with contemporary humor and judicious use of silence. It was successful enough that their hosts, the Roxy Theater, invited Wagner and company back for a short season this fall and winter.
The model is do-it-yourself: pick contemporary works that call for small casts and minimal sets, placing acting and direction to the forefront on the movie theater's petite stages, which are typically used for live music or speakers. Audiences have responded to the material and the productions: They added an extra run of the season's first play, an excellent production of another Baker script, "The Aliens."
Payne's "Constellations" is new enough that it hasn't been performed in Missoula yet. Neither Wagner nor the two leads have seen it themselves. It earned strong reviews in major markets, after which Wagner read the script himself.
"It's demanding on all accounts," Wagner said. "That's really why I wanted to do it."
Roland is somewhat average, which makes it surprising that he's portrayed by Jeff Medley, a natural in humorous or quirky roles in theater and films that has made him a ubiquitous and popular presence in the arts community. Wagner asked Medley to come for an audition, where he and co-lead Kate Scott had an instant rapport in a highly emotional scene.
"Watching the two of them so subtly navigate the depth of that scene so immediately, I couldn't believe they hadn't done it before," Wagner said.
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Medley sobbed during a particularly poignant scene, something that isn't required in one of his annual favorites: Riff Raff in "The Rocky Horror Show Live."
"I like playing all these zany characters because it gives me a break from being human," he said.
He recalls trying to watch Charlie Kaufman's science-fiction romantic comedy, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" while living in Japan. He found it too wrenching to finish. He still hasn't seen the ending.
"Constellations," while leavened with humor, too, puts him through a similar experience, he said.
Scott, meanwhile, starred in an original, local production of "Holocene," a science-fiction drama, in 2014. She also won a lead role in the Montana Repertory Theatre's 2015 production of David Ives' "Venus in Fur."
Like "Constellations," it relied primarily on two leads. In contrast, Scott said an ensemble piece is like "being able to walk on a bed of nails." With a larger cast, "the weight is dispersed." In a two-hander, as they're called, there's a heavier burden. Aside from a few cameos, audiences will only see Scott and Medley on stage with a set designed by Michael Fink, a theater professor at UM.
The two have to produce subtle variations on their characters, as each universe has its own context. In one scene, Roland might be sweet. In another, he might be an adulterer. In one scene, Marianne might be more in touch with what Roland needs. In another, she might be more detached because of that intellect.
Scott said Marianne is a "quirky intellectual" seeking a kindred spirit, who embraces her jokes that almost land or don't land at all. Medley, meanwhile, brings a "nice levity" to his character, Wagner said.
The scenes, and universes, vary in length, creating a rhythm unique to the play.
"They vary from four lines of dialogue to four or five pages," Wagner said.
It progresses through arcs of the course of their relationship, while never hinting that one is more valid than another.
"That's partially why it's called 'Constellations,' " Wagner said. "I think the audience will have the opportunity to choose their own through-line and connect their own dots."