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Coupledom in a parallel universe

A relationship can sometimes grow and mature, go off track and collapse, or never begin at all based on luck and the most tenuous of circumstances.

"Constellations," by British playwright Nick Payne, uses the concept of parallel universes to explore the different paths one relationship could take.

The Ashland New Plays Festival is presenting a one-night-only dramatic reading of the two-person play at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 8, at the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship center, 87 Fourth St., Ashland. Tickets are $20 and are available online at www.ashlandnewplays.org/tickets-anpf/ or at the door, subject to availability.

The reading stars Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors Daniel Jose Molina and Alejandra Escalante, who dazzled audiences in a passionate, intimate portrayal of the title characters in "Romeo and Juliet" at OSF in 2012. The couple appear on stage this year in OSF's productions of "Henry IV, Part One" and "Henry IV, Part Two."

Escalante says she was intrigued by the idea of doing a two-person play with Molina — a departure from other acting opportunities they've had.

"Constellations" is a beautifully intimate piece, she says.

"It's honestly stunning," Escalante says. "I don't know if I have one quote or scene that really stood out. It was more the overall feeling of finishing it and feeling so heartbroken and moved. It feels so dreamy and yet so raw."

Rather than proceeding with a linear timeline, the play dramatizes the many branches a relationship could take.

"'Constellations' is an interesting and complex look at coupledom. We see a relationship play out in many ways," says Jackie Apodaca, a Southern Oregon University professor and the Ashland New Plays Festival's associate artistic director. She is directing the play reading.

"The scene when the two characters meet plays out five or six times," Apodaca says. "One makes a bad joke and the other person leaves — or the person laughs. So much depends on whether someone is in the right mood when they meet another person, or at the right stage in their life. Maybe someone meets a person just after getting a divorce, instead of meeting a year earlier when still married."

Now in its 26th year, the Ashland New Plays Festival is known for its annual play writing contest and staging of the winning entries during its flagship October festival. It also tackles other innovative projects during other parts of the year.

Apodaca says in addition to honoring new work with its contests, the Ashland New Plays Festival brings plays to the Rogue Valley that might not be produced here otherwise.

She notes theater companies like OSF are unlikely to stage "Constellations" because of its tiny two-person cast.

The play, which premiered in London in 2012, did appear on Broadway in 2015 and has been produced by a range of theaters, including ones operating on shoestring budgets.

"Its two actors are within the budgets of many theater companies," Apodaca says. "It's much cheaper with only two actors. Over the years, casts in theater have gotten smaller and smaller. It's a detriment to the stories we can tell. Playwrights are focusing on two- to six-person casts."

In the case of "Constellations," the small cast size fits its intimate story line.

The play won rave reviews from The New York Times, which said it "may be the most sophisticated date play Broadway has seen."

Calling Payne a "wise and compassionate young playwright," The New York Times said, "This story of parallel universes is universal in every sense of the word."

Apodaca says "Constellations" explores the idea of multiple universes — or a multiverse — with different events happening simultaneously and forever.

Regardless of whether the relationship survives, the multiverse keeps it alive in its various incarnations into infinity.

"Everything you have with someone exists forever — somewhere," Apodaca says.

With a dramatic reading, the pared-down nature of the presentation allows the audience to see the play in a way that is fresh and direct from the playwright's hands. There are no props, no set, no lighting design — only the actors, she says.

"They're bringing the world of the play to life through their performances," Apodaca says.

For a full production of the play, the script includes stage technology directions, especially to indicate transitions between the universes. For the reading, OSF's Rachel Kostma will read stage directions with accompaniment by cellist Isabella Thatcher.

"The changes in the universe will be indicated by dissonant or melodic riffs on the cello," Apodaca says.

Ultimately, she says, "Constellations" exposes how so much of life is based on chance.

"It's a horrifying and beautiful aspect of life," Apodaca says.

Alejandra Escalante and Daniel Jose Molina star in Ashland New Plays Festival's reading of 'Constellations.' [Photo courtesy of ANPF]