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When love and quantum physics collide: A response to ‘Constellations’

Last year a widely admired celebrity passed away and someone equally famous and respected said something along the lines of, “In a parallel universe, he is alive and smiling.” It was the least consoling sentence I heard about death.

The multiverse theory, however, has its share of believers, if not “considerers.” Those with big imaginations (fictionists) lap it up. It is easy to divine its appeal: This life sucks. I regret doing that. If only I could turn… If there is another reality in which life isn’t so bad and I make the right decisions, then maybe I shouldn’t beat myself up.

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But reality — this time-bound, linear one, save for the vivid dreams and occasional déja vu, where we burn our skin when we play with fire and it hurts like hell — has a way of imposing itself. For now, as ordinary human beings, this universe is all we can care about.

A recent and so far successful (based on its glowing reviews) piece of literature that explores the nature of a multiverse is Nick Payne’s drama, Constellations. The play, which follows the story of Roland and Marianne, had its world premiere in 2011 in London and it returned in 2015 on West End and on Broadway (where Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson made their theater debut). In February, the play is arriving to our shores courtesy of Red Turnip Theater.

It’s another boy-meets-girl tale, only we see the couple dance in a constellation of possibilities — realities? Payne’s storytelling is also its own thesis as it mimics how Roland and Marianne’s encounters may play out in parallel universes. Sporadically, Payne even explains the time lapses and loops through Marianne.

MARIANNE: Despite our best efforts, there are certain microscopic observations that just cannot be predicted absolutely. Now, potentially, one way of explaining this is to draw the conclusion that, at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.

* * *

MARIANNE: So you’ve these two theories that are completely at odds with one another. Relativity covers the sun, the moon, the stars, while quantum mechanics takes care of molecules, quarks, atoms — that sort of thing. We’ve effectively asked the same question twice and come up with two completely different answers.

ROLAND: This is really sexy by the way.

For all the intrigue it inspires and the few laughs it draws out, reading the play still feels like going through a chapter in a science textbook, where a short story is used to illustrate an idea. After the last page it’s back to: What now?

Whether or not functioning as a disclaimer, Payne uses a quote from Peter Atkins’ On Being as an epigraph to his book:

Why should the universe have a purpose? The question of the universe is an invention of human minds…We should not impose human-inspired attitudes and questions on material things. There is a considerable grandeur, I think, in the presence of our spectacularly majestic universe just hanging there, wholly without purpose.

That is really sexy. And I agree. Because purpose, meaning, and — no matter how cheesy it sounds — the betterment of the world are dealt in the laboratories of art and literature. It’s a shame that Constellations falls short in placing human emotions against the possibilities (alternate realities?) it presents.

This is not to forget that it is written to be performed. That’s why it’s interesting to watch the live performance, starring Cris Villonco as Marianne and JC Santos as Roland, and which will run from Feb. 12 to Mar. 6 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight in Makati.

Villonco, who is also one of the founders of Red Turnip Theater, told me before that the company chooses plays that “don’t necessarily have the happy endings” but instead “have the real ones.” The question is, can there be endings in a multiverse? On paper, the entire play is neither sad nor happy, only theoretical. We can’t wait to see how Villonco, Santos, and director Rem Zamora will put heart into the cold science that informs Constellations.

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