‘Constellations’: the multiverse of ‘what if’s’


By Shannon Garrido, Editor-in-chief

Boston’s Vermillion Theater staged their interpretation of “Constellations,” portraying young love throughout different universes—highlighting the fragility of “what-ifs.”

Originally written by British playwright Nick Payne, this all-female interpretation was directed and translated to Mandarin by Emerson grad student Yuning Su ’23 and founding managing director Wisteria Deng, wit English subtitles playing on-screen behind the actors, The show took place on April 8th and 9th. 

In an interview with the Beacon last week, Deng explained that the decision to make the cast all-female was to put out a queer and multilingual edition of the same show. This is mainly because many of Vermillion’s core members are sexual and gender minorities themselves.  

The story follows beekeeper Roland and physicist Marianne, played by Deng and Kaye Hu ’23, respectively, as they navigate the ups and downs of their relationship. The stage shows a simplistic, yet intricately crafted set of mirrors that place the girls in different scenarios to represent the possibility of choice. 

From the first meeting to the first fight, the audience was presented with different outcomes in every scene and slightly altered situations that took place in different dimensions—portraying how one’s intention can completely change their outcome. As the story progresses, the actresses do a phenomenal job in rapidly changing their demeanor and delivery to emulate the emotions their characters feel about the same situation replicated in different universes. 

Hu, while ironically joking about disliking public speech during her post-show interview with the Beacon, was incredibly captivating in her role—her character was easily the most emotionally challenged through the story. 

“Acting is different, it just feels different for me,” Hu said. “I feel more comfortable.”

Marianne is shown grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, and later falls victim to the same disease. In a matter of seconds, she had to portray several scenarios where she is frustrated or sad in response to Roland’s behavior. We see Marianne become irritated at Roland for seemingly walking on eggshells around her due to her health, clearly portraying her distaste for being treated like a fragile, sick person. As viewers, we can understand how someone battling a potentially fatal illness doesn’t want to be treated as such. 

However, the beauty of this multiverse lies in the “choices” each character makes when running into the same dilemma in different universes, yet reacting differently in each one. As the same scene is repeated, we see Marianne respond differently to Roland’s concerns, becoming saddened and discouraged to get better, as if she has given up all personal autonomy to her illness. In any case, the audience comes to understand that by seeing the world through “what-ifs”—what if this was said, what if they reacted differently—the audience cannot be sure where their choices start and end, or if it is inevitable to react a certain way in the universes they find themselves in. 

The set design very clearly communicated that message as well, as the broken mirrors project different scenes that are constantly moving across the stage.

“It was all very intentional … each mirror represents a different universe where we see these scenarios play out in different ways,” Su said. 

In order to truly show audiences that there is no real beginning or end to Roland and Marianne’s story, it was crucial to move them around the stage. As the directors discovered, the best way to do that was to face the women away from the audience in moments of real pain and vulnerability, their faces and bodies instead projected on each broken mirror. 

Each mirror showed a different angle of the same dialogue as the women try to confront one another while they deal with the loss of a parent, unhappiness in their relationship, or upsets in their jobs. Very real and relatable issues suddenly become subject to interpretation depending on the angle. 

Though beautiful, this presentation took a lot of trial and error. 

“We were trying to do it with actual mirrors, which was our first battle,” said Hu. “As it turns out, the mirrors didn’t work. And then we tried projecting it and we also had tons of technical issues with the live cameras, especially during the first few shows.”

As the characters go through different stages of their relationship, we mostly see them arguing. It was overwhelming to see two people who meet in so many different universes struggle to effectively communicate their love for each other in almost every single one. 

“I feel like it’s okay if they are not together,” Hu said. “Something was just wrong between them, just incorrect.”

The statement, as heartbreaking as it sounds, rings true. We are programmed to root for the happy ending and I can confidently say that I thought I would too. However, soon I became skeptical of the love that Roland and Marianne shared and wondered if all love, if observed through different universes, is about perspective. Not destiny, not “true love,” but rather time and place. 

After a while, it seemed that in the eyes of the universe, Roland and Marianne could not choose to react the way they do, because if they could they would just be happily in love in every universe. This posed a central question to the audience: how much choice do we really have?

As they continue to fight and make up, bigger themes are sewn into the conversation. These moments were almost always spearheaded by Marianne who believes that the universe is much too big, and we are much too small to be significant at all. Everything we will ever do, or have done, has been repeated—the point “Constellations” was making all along. 

The story of Marianne and Roland is one of frantic conversations and abrupt halts in concentrated lighting. “Constellations” explores the possibilities of chance in a multiverse that seemingly gives us no choice. 

“But what about free will?” Roland wonders in the play. 

“There is no such thing as free will,” Marianne replies.