On the surface, “Constellations” is a classic love story of boy meets girl. But when you add in astrophysics, cosmology and quantum mechanics, no show can really be that simple. After all, when the first stage direction is “A change in font equals a change in universe,” you know you’re in for something different.
Much like the musical “If/Then,” which played at Starlight Theatre last summer, “Constellations” deals in parallel universes, exploring the “what-ifs” of life — in this case, the oddball relationship between an astrophysicist and a beekeeper.
“It’s a wild process because it’s a very different kind of play,” said actress Bree Elrod, who plays scientist Marianne in the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s production, beginning Thursday. “It’s not a linear play, necessarily. It kind of jumps back and forth in time.”
Elrod, a Topeka native and veteran Kansas City actress (most recently seen in “A Streetcar Named Desire”), joins forces with Tuc Watkins, who grew up in Johnson County and returned home after a long career in TV and film (“One Life to Live,” “Desperate Housewives,” 1999’s “The Mummy”).
In the two-character play by Nick Payne, they are Marianne and Roland, who re-live their meeting and the progression of their relationship as different decisions send their lives on different trajectories — including affairs, breakups, serious illnesses and long-term relationships.
On Broadway in 2015, the show starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. The Rep’s production, at its downtown Copaken Stage, is a Kansas City premiere.
For Watkins’ first foray into local theater since moving back from Los Angeles, it seemed like a perfect fit. As a single father of twins, he had come back to Kansas City to be closer to family and was looking for a way to rejoin the artistic community. Then KC Rep director Eric Rosen invited him to star in “Constellations.”
“It’s a very theatrical play, and I like that it really takes advantage of the space that it’s in — I find it very exciting,” Watkins said. “It’s really interesting to explore the intimate possibilities of a relationship, because I know I like to look back on past relationships and think, ‘What if I hadn’t broken up with that person? What if I had not gone to that dinner party?’ and so on.”
In the play, those what-ifs come from string theory — just one of the scientific theories at play. Because Marianne’s work is complicated, Elrod and Watkins both spoke to a University of Missouri-Kansas City scientist about it. Elrod also researched extensively on her own.
“My major in college was political science, which did not help with anything, but it was a science,” Elrod joked.
But understanding the science isn’t necessary to enjoy the play. In fact, Watkins sees his character as a stand-in for the audience as Marianne passionately speaks about her work to the simple beekeeper.
“I play a guy who works with his hands and doesn’t work with his brain the same way that she works with her brain,” he said. “She posits possibilities that my character considers … but what he’s really doing is falling in love with her while she’s explaining it. He doesn’t really wrap his head around what she’s saying — but it’s the way she’s saying it.”
“I think, more than anything, it just shows how passionate Marianne is about her work,” Elrod said. “You’re not going to go and feel like you’re watching a science lecture.”
Although Watkins has focused on on-camera acting recently, he said it hasn’t been difficult to adjust back to the stage (he performed in an off-Broadway production of “White’s Lies” in 2010). For him, it’s the same muscle, just exercised in a different way.
“You have to be more honest; you can’t hide behind gimmicks or multiple takes,” he said.
Elrod said working with Watkins has actually brought a naturalism to the characters that other stage actors, used to playing to big audiences, might overlook. And in a science play that’s ultimately about the relationship between two people, that’s invaluable.
“I hope people will be able to just sit down and jump into this world with these two characters and experience the love and the life and the loss that they are experiencing,” she said. “I hope they’ll see some of their own humanity reflected back to them.”
▪ “A Night on the Town With Justin McCoy,” Thursday-Saturday at Musical Theater Heritage. McCoy, who played Jim in MTH’s production of “Big River,” will host the next installment of this cabaret evening program. See MTHKC.org.
▪ “Disenchanted!” March 7-19, presented by Starlight Theatre at the indoor Cohen Community Stagehouse. The touring musical turns fairy tales on their head by giving famous princesses the chance to tell their side of the story. See StarlightKC.com.