Constellations at the Masquerade Theatre

Theatre has inspired philosophical rumination throughout the ages. It led Aristotle to craft his ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ concept. Perhaps stimulated by this author of the ancient treatise Physics, playwright Nick Payne adapted principles from contemporary physics and applied them to the stage. Mr. Payne took both a creative and innovative approach to drama in 2011’s Constellations. The Masquerade Theatre presented a virtual production of the show the evening of September 25th.

Constellations well suited the company’s mission of “exploring the humanity behind the masque.” The limited setting required the characters in this piece to wear many of them. All of the action occurred in the “multiverse”: “a theoretical reality that includes a possibly infinite number of parallel universes.” The show contained just two characters: Roland (played by Andrew Spinosi) and Maryanne (Julie Roberts).

The story followed Roland and Maryanne’s relationship beginning at the time they met through its myriad joys and vicissitudes. The playwright avoided the trite “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” formula through the multiverse setting. In some of these worlds, their relationship blossomed. In others, it ended badly. The most interesting synthesized both possibilities.

Director Megan Knowlton Balne aspired to make every multiverse a unique one. The dialog made this a challenge. As the same events took place in different multiverses, the text contained many repeated lines. The script contained two characters. Both actors performed in front of the same black canopy decorated with stars the entire show. Mr. Spinosi explained that he and Ms. Roberts analyzed and broke down the text in order to make every scene distinctive.

The story’s complexity put both characters through the entire range of human emotions. Both Mr. Spinosi and Ms. Roberts brought these feelings to the audiences’ screens. Ms. Roberts showed bursting excitement when Mr. Spinosi stumbled through one of his proposals. Her yawning during Roland’s bee lecture was both believable and understandable. She both expressed and showed intense anger when describing a person’s reaction to a cancer diagnosis. During a heated marriage proposal, Ms. Roberts leaned back and showed uneasiness.   

Mr. Spinosi portrayed the more emotional of the two characters. He cried during pivotal scenes; including great sensitivity in one where Maryann broke up with him. Mr. Spinosi showed excellent nerves and awkwardness during a chance encounter at a ballroom dancing class. Then he performed a scene that will be remembered as legendary in the annals of community theatre. While preparing to ask Maryanne to marry him, he realized that he forgot to bring the ring with him. He erupted. His temper tantrum developed into the most creative proposals ever enacted on either a virtual or physical stage.

Mr. Spinosi’s unhinged performance rivaled that of Marnie Kanarek’s portrayal of Catherine in The Heiress. Haddonfield Plays and Players produced that show in May of 2015.

Maryanne may have been a self-described “honey philistine,” but Ms. Roberts brought one sweet interpretation of her to the virtual stage. In addition to performing repetitive scenes, Ms. Roberts delivered a number of lines with repeating words herself. They included, “If you don’t want to see me again, you don’t have to see me again.” And “We have all the time we’ve always had.” Ms. Roberts made every delivery of these sentences sound as fresh as the original. Later in the show, Ms. Roberts performed Maryanne’s speaking issues both credibly and respectfully.

It seemed fitting that Andy Spinosi portrayed a beekeeper. Audiences will be buzzing about his performance for some time to come. He portrayed all his character’s complex facets very well. Mr. Spinosi brought out the nuances between a “happy drunk” and an “angry drunk” in different scenes. That showed the depth of his skill.  

The director and the actors understood the effective use of silence. The long pauses added tension to already intense scenes.

Corona made a clever cameo during the show. Ms. Roberts used a beverage of the same name during one of the restaurant scenes.

As the play took place via Crowdcast, the actors didn’t perform in the same place. Ms. Roberts played from her Chicago home as Mr. Spinosi acted from his in Philadelphia. Both showed authenticity in their interactions with one another. Using the Ask a Question button, your correspondent inquired whether or not the two performers could see one another during the show.

Ms. Roberts said that they could see each other on their screens. As she played to her webcam, Ms. Roberts could glimpse Mr. Spinosi in her peripheral vision.

She added that both she and Mr. Spinosi had worked together on other projects. They also attended the same college and received the same theatrical training. These factors aided the rapport between the two performers.

Ms. Balne said that the actors adjusted to this unconventional set-up. They heightened their listening skills in order to perform on this platform.

In one affecting scene, both actors communicated via sign language. Director Balne debated whether or not to include translations using the Crowdcast chat feature.  She made the artistic decision not to so that the audience would continue looking at the characters.

Abhinav Dani served as the project’s American Sign Language Consultant.

An original development for virtual theatre transpired during Constellations. The production team made lighting a key component of the show. Two lights shone on each performer. They positioned one in front and another one above where they sat. Lighting Designer Molly Jo Gifford used an app on her phone to control them. Director Balne described her elation over applying this feature. She said it made her, “Glad to be bringing real theatre back.”

Tommy Balne provided Stage Management, he and Ms. Balne managed the Sound Design and Ms. Roberts worked on the project’s marketing.

Ms. Balne wrote in the playbill: Constellations embodies the core of Masquerade’s mission — the exploration of our common humanity. She added that Mr. Payne’s work: served as a beautiful example of how art and science complement each other.Aristotle couldn’t have said it better.

Constellations runs for one more performance on September 26th at 8:00 PM. The Masquerade Theatre will next present a virtual performance of Great Expectations in December of 2020. More information is available on their website at: https://www.masqueradetheatre.org/.

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