Reaching for the stars
Kenzie Yellin and Lionel Chute star in <i>Constellations,</i> which opens on Sept. 8 at Actors Theatre Playhouse in West Chesterfield, N.H.

Reaching for the stars

‘Constellations’ at Actors Theatre Playhouse explores the infinite possibilities of a relationship

Since 1987, Actors Theatre Playhouse (ATP) has offered a rich range of theatrical fare.

Its offerings range from old chestnuts to new works. They're experimental and time-honed, often edgy, sometimes comic. They usually push an envelope or two.

Its season nearing an end, ATP has already mounted its annual 10-minute-play festival, Morning's at Seven, and Stones in His Pockets. Next up at ATP, before the season closes with Shakespeare's Will, is Nick Payne's award-garnering play Constellations.

Set in and around present-day London, where Constellations opened in 2012, the play was nominated for four Olivier Awards. In 2015, it ran on Broadway, where it received nominations for one Tony Award and four Drama League Awards.

Revived in London last winter, it was offered in repertory by four casts - gay, Black, elderly, young. The show is played across the globe from Perth to Los Angeles to Beijing.

“The play is versatile, human, relatable,” director Burt Tepfer notes. “It's amazing, what casts from varying demographics can bring to the script.”

Tepfer says the play can be distilled to one phrase: “One relationship, infinite possibilities.”

Our 'common rumination'

The story follows Roland, an awkward beekeeper, and Marianne, a quirky cosmologist/astrophysicist - two characters fully and deftly presented in a series of scenes of pivotal times in their togetherness. It's a loving, strong, but bumpy trajectory from their meeting at a barbecue, through dating, breakup, reconnecting, proposal.

“In the end, they face a serious illness and pivotal decisions to be made. It's a wonderful, heartwarming, modern relationship play - a life story more than a love story, really,” Tepfer observes.

“To me, the fascinating part of this play delves into how we make the important choices in our lives,” he adds. “What influences, conscious or unconscious, and what other things such as our mood, chance, or seemingly random events are involved?”

Tepfer says the play deals with “the common rumination we all have felt” - namely, “What if...?”

“What if, for example, I had not walked in just then? Or what if I hadn't said that thing I now regret? Or what if I hadn't been in such a lousy mood? The play explores these ideas,” he continues.

Marianne often waxes poetic about cosmology, quantum mechanics, string theory, and the belief that multiple universes pull people's lives in various directions.

This theme is reflected in the play's structure: scenes are replayed with a slightly different tilt and then, often, a dramatically different outcome that can be influenced by chance, mood, and those myriad “what ifs.”

“Of course, 'constellations' makes one think of stars,” Tepfer observes, “but the play is also about configurations, groupings, alignments.”

Marianne has her head in the stars as she alludes to various possibilities that science has explored - infinite worlds, galaxies, suns, and the notion that there might be some other world out there like ours.

The two professions - beekeeper and physicist - are opposites. Bees conjure a notion of a grounded calm, intuitive and very nurturing. The bees are focused: they want the hive to succeed. Roland is of that ilk, while Marianne thinks big: she has grand vision and theories to match, and she's not into details.

A long gestation

Tepfer, who grew up in New York City and was educated at Boston University and the University of California, has been doing theater for some 50 years. By day a cardiologist at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, he joined ATP 20 years ago after appearing with other area groups.

Ten years ago, he was drawn to directing. This will be his fourth full-stage production after ATP's Copenhagen, Bad Jews, and The Father.

Constellations has had a long gestational period,” Tepfer explains. “I first started working on this play in 2015. It has captivated me for a long time, and I am thrilled at finally bringing it to the stage.”

Tepfer and the cast - Lionel Chute and Kenzie Yellin - have been working together on the play for almost three years, having had it postponed due to Covid in 2020 and again in 2021. The cast, he explains, has “been as dedicated and enthusiastic about this show as I've been, and it has been a pleasure to work with them.”

Chute, who's acted locally and in New York City, says, “I can honestly say that in many years of acting I've never had a role like this.”

“The plot of the play has been run through a prism, bending and refracting the story into 45 pieces,” he says. Each piece is different but also intimately connected to the whole. The result is a rainbow of scenes, a fantastic roller-coaster to perform. The feeling I have at the end of the show is unlike any that I've known.”

“I absolutely love this show!” says Yellin, who's been seen in many Keene-area productions and calls Constellations “a brilliant story of life, love, second chances, and choices.”

“As frustrating as it was to be delayed (twice), I think it helped,” she says. “How often do you have three years to work on a project before presentation? It is like a master's thesis in character study.”

“I'd been finicky about casting this show,” Tepfer notes. “If you have only two actors, they have to be very good, and very compatible.”

“And these two are,” the director says, calling Yellin and Chute “marvelous - mature and grounded people.”

“They embody so much humanity, you can really see and reach them,” Tepfer says.

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