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'Constellations' playwright a word-smithing star

"Brief, intense and unusual" is how James Pagliasotti, president of the Ashland New Plays Festival, describes "Constellations" by Nick Payne, and that's remarkably accurate. Although the play runs a mere hour and eight minutes, the ANPF reading staged Monday, May 8, at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Ashland was certainly packed with energy and passion.

Payne is a compelling playwright, and his writing is strong and well executed. He is only in his early 30s, but the work feels more mature. His voice is reminiscent of Patrick Marber, or perhaps (if you're feeling generous) Tom Stoppard — although Payne still has some distance to climb before reaching the territory of that lingual Olympian. Still, he does have the cadence, and one can only assume that great work will be forthcoming, barring some unhappy retraction of his burgeoning quill.

"Constellations" is a wonderful play, and it lives in the land of peek-a-boo evasiveness that can only really be attempted when a writer has the level of mastery needed to leave an audience puzzled and satiated both at the same time. This is achieved through originality of language that gets out of its own way sufficient to allow the viewer to draw their own conclusions.

For Payne, that meant writing a play that operates in free form, giving his actors the same lines over and over again, but teasing and tweaking them such that every possible outcome might be gleaned from each seemingly arbitrary interaction. A small inflection here, a difference in a turn of phrase there, and a declarative statement becomes a probing question that leads to a night spent in the arms of a new lover. An accidental meeting over a decomposing buffet could become just another superficial chat, or the bedrock upon which many years of loving relationship is founded and tested. You get the idea.

As someone who is himself in full recovery mode from a brief relationship of spectacular cruelty, I was very happy to see that the actors chosen to navigate the waters of Payne's thoughtful genius were none other than the "It" couple of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Alejandra Escalante (as Marianne) and Daniel Jose Molina (as Roland). It was reassuring that the artists chosen for this particular show are themselves a twosome. Taking a break from the roles of Hotspur and Prince Hal, respectively, in OSF's current production of "Henry IV, Part 1," the two actors waded into this show with polish and aplomb. Both were truly riveting in their performances.

As Molina himself noted, this is a play where — even if an artist is wildly well prepared — there is a sense of not knowing quite what might come next. If the performers were feeling that, the audience certainly had to be. With just a pair of black music stands and their own intrepidity to prop themselves up, Escalante and Molina dug into issues as diverse as betrayal, revenge, the first flush of love, terminal illness, family dynamic, and the cruel isolation of everyday life that anyone who has loved and lost would find excruciatingly relatable. The pair riff off of each other like Monk and Coltrane, and it's not hard to see why they are currently among the brightest stars on Bardway.

Direction by Jackie Apodaca was seamless, and staging by Rachel Kostrna was deft. Each brief interaction between the players is punctuated by exquisite cello accompaniment from Isabella Thatcher, who was sensitive enough to choose Bach as a strong referential melody that suited the action perfectly.

Everyone involved brought their best, and Payne is a contemporary voice to be reckoned with, so it's no surprise that "Constellations" was a triumphant evening of intimate theater for those of us lucky enough to attend. Let's hope Ashland New Plays Festival will continue to move in this direction. "Constellations" was a worthwhile night for all involved.

"Constellations" by Nick Payne was a one-night only performance. For more on Ashland New Plays Festival, visit www.ashlandnewplays.org.

— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.