In the center of a circular white stage, encircled by video cameras, and lit by projected moving images of space, in a small Perspex box, a hamster runs on a wheel. These elements combined in a spare but visually compelling image, set the scene and central metaphor for Wang Chong’s interpretation of Nick Payne’s Constellations, playing at La MaMa as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival: the universe, multiplicity, and an endless run towards…something? Nothing…?
Constellations was similarly dramatically spare in Michael Longhurst’s original staging at the Royal Court Theatre in 2011 and again in a hit 2014 production on Broadway, but Wang Chong and Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental are aiming to do more than present a Chinese-language version of a British play (though it is also that). Constellations follows Du Lei (Li Jialong), a beekeeper, and Liu Mei (Wang Xiaohuan), a scholar of “theoretical early universe cosmology” (Roland and Marianne in the English version), as they repeatedly play out slight variations of deceptively simple, stumbling, and deeply relatable interactions that eventually lead—at least in one possible universe—to their relationship and entwined lives.
In principal, the play takes inspiration from the kind of theoretical cosmology in which Liu Mei works, but is surely equally inspired by that teasing thought, “what if I had…?” Sometimes the actual reality conveyed by the dialogue is different (eg. married vs. single), sometimes the words are the same but the tone drastically different, at other times it’s a slightly different turn of phrase, or just the kind of spoon with which honey is eaten that apparently produces a microscopic shift in reality that changes the outcome. The play risks transforming into an acting exercise (and indeed would be very good as one!), and the emotional commitment to characters who are revealed in unreliable snatches of dialogue is slower to build than in a conventional script, but it does get there in the end, thanks to a deft combination of humor and pathos, and a keen ear for the quotidian that disguises more complex emotion.
Where Chong adds his own interpretative touch—hamster aside—is in the use of the cameras surrounding the stage. The actors move from camera to camera, with the scene projected onto the screen that overhangs the stage, onto which are also projected the English supertitles. The device tidily incorporates the need for supertitles into the production’s artistic choices (though the timing of the titles needs finessing). The addition of color-distortion, on the other hand, which distinguish the brief flash-forwards, in which the out-of-context dialogue feels surreal until we come to understand that Liu Mei is describing her loss of facility as a tumor destroys her frontal lobe, detracts more than it adds to the moment.
More importantly, however, the cameras ingeniously make the idea of perspective and identification concrete. Sometimes, one character might be in total close-up (simply by standing close to and facing the camera) with the other an unfocussed figure in the background. In other moments the two faces of Liu Mei and Du Lei crowd the screen, creating intimate proximity between them and with the audience. Sometimes, a depersonalized shoulder merely frames the character with whom we, the audience, are at that moment most identifying. The affective strategy is, of course, borrowed directly from cinema, but here the performers are responsible for framing their own shots and the immediacy of the performance retains the tension of live theatre.
Constellations depends most of all, however, on its cast of two—and both Wang Xiaohuan and Li Jialong are excellent. Li Jialong plays Du Lei with a boyishness goofiness that matures into greater depth as the play and the relationship develops, but Wang Xiaohuan truly carries the show. The cameras play to her strengths, which include a delicately expressive face—close-ups reveal the subtle simmering of emotion just beneath the skin and behind the eyes, as she maintains “normal” conversation with Du Lei. The sincerity of her performance saves those moments when the abrupt transitions between tonalities could jarringly highlight the artifice of acting.
Neither seems totally at home in the scenes leaning on drunken hilarity or brash humor, which perhaps speak to the challenges of translation. A few details of the translated text feel a little sticky too, and although place names were transferred to the Chinese context, many British references remained, creating an odd dissonance (and surely many Americans would be utterly puzzled by a “Digestive binge” anyway)? The vulnerability that shifts from Lieu Mei to Du Lei and back again needs, however, no translation; nor does their charming chemistry.
The floor projections and sound effects (designed by Li Yangfan and Meng Lingyang) accompanying each transition enhance the rhythm and internal logic of the play, but it is a testament to the actors that I did not crave them for sensory variation, though they are lovely. Then there’s the hamster, to whom the live feed switched during these same transitions, filling the screen with the image of the animal, still running in his/her wheel, largely forgotten during the rest of the performance, aside from the tapping of his/her feet in quieter moments. The image is striking, and, has metaphorical weight, but is it the right metaphor? “Like a hamster in a wheel” signifies futility and entrapment and over the ninety-minute show, the hamster’s presence in that small box troubled me; is the artistic payoff worth it?
Troubling hamsters aside, Wang Chong’s multi-media take on Nick Payne’s Constellations is an elegant and quietly compelling production. There is an added interest in seeing what the Beijing-based company brings to the British playwright’s text, but as a whole it feels rather refreshingly unburdened by either Western or Chinese cultural trappings, bringing tight focus to simple human emotion and the vagaries of life.