Reviewed by Will Stackman
Joining "The Beard of Avon" in rep, the Publick Theatre's second offering this summer is Michael Frayn's intense speculative drama "Copenhagen." This language driven piece for three actors dissects the meeting in September 1941 between two famous physicists involved in the creation of the atom bomb. In Nazi-occupied Denmark, Neils Bohr, played by Barry Press last featured locally in Foothills' "Tuesdays with Morrie," is still head of a world-famous institute of atomic physics. His former student Werner Heisenberg, played by Gabriel Kuttner currently appearing as Will Shaksper at the Publick, has come from Germany to speak to his mentor. The exact nature of their brief meeting has been variously reported, vaguely, by both parties. Bohr, who was half-Jewish, escaped two years later in a mass exodus to Sweden and wound up at Los Alamos shortly thereafter. Heisenberg, who remained until the end of the war head of the unsuccessful German attempt to create the Bomb, focused on creating a working reactor and never made (or reported) several key calculations essential to fashioning an atomic weapon. As one of the creators of quantum mechanics, whose name is forever linked to the "Uncertainty Principle," this failure seems inexplicable. Uncertainty is the play's central metaphor. The more precisely the position of a particle (read Bohr or Heisenberg) is determined, the less precisely the momentum or direction can be known at that instant, and vice versa
Frayn weaves several of the most likely theories about this conversation into a two act mystery/morality, with Bohr's wife, Margrethe, played by Publick's producing director, Susanne Nitter as the moderator. As in Bohr's famous model of the atom, the two men keep circling the subject like electrons with Margrethe at the center of this agon bringing them back to reality--or is it Purgatory. Artistic Director, Diego Arciniegas, at the helm of this production, uses the fact that his three actors are discretely bodymiked to take the action into Publick's amphitheater. At the opening, after Neils and Margrethe onstage have announced that since they're all deceased, it's time she at least knew what happened, Heisenberg circles the entire audience at least twice carrying on an interior monologue. When Bohr and Heisenberg go for a walk they can be not only be seen in the distance beyond Judy Stacier's elegant set, but heard. The amplification necessary to use these microphones also means that Steven Barkhimer's score combining Beethoven, Bach, and original themes is properly reproduced, along with essential sound effects. The use of sound, including an immense explosion, adds to an unworldy sense to the evening. Michael Blakemore's original London production, which is embedded in the script, used lighting and stylized blocking on a proscenium stage to both vary and emphasize the repetition of events which makes this play so distinctive. Arciniegas has used his open space quite creatively, so that at least the front rows are intimate witnesses, much as the small part of the audience seated onstage during Blakemore's productions, to the conflict between these two geniuses, while incorporating nature and the environment in a way impossible indoors. There are small distractions of course, but also serendipitous events, as when a single plane passed over just as the discussion turned to Hiroshima.
Stacier, who's added a long bridge to a berm behind the platform to this year's unit set, has framed this major entrance with a stylized and fragmented arch of metallic orbits. Three abstract metallic pillars suggestive of reactor rod cages provide the only furnishings. Rafael Jaen and his crew have given the cast '40s continental suits and an elegant ensemble for Margrethe, suggesting the Bohr's social position. The cast adopts neutral British accents which complement the author's diction. In "Copenhagen" Frayn has clearly created a durable work which reveals fresh insight into the human condition and the moral responsibility of science. In one provocative coinage, he suggests that this modern world needs to develop quantum ethics capable of dealing with uncertainty. A glance at the daily news reinforces this view. Not only the Middle East needs flexibility regarding position and direction.