“Why did he [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?”
As the first line of a play, it seems a simple enough question. In playwright Michael Frayn’s award-winning1998 drama Copenhagen, a detailed imaginative framing of a well-documented 1941 meeting between nuclear research scientists Niels Bohr (a Dane) and Werner Heisenberg (a German) and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, the question refers to discussion of technology that could have given Hitler access to an atomic bomb. Imagine that? The play, two acts’ worth, spins off into existential, expressionistic riffs, reflecting in style, movement and thought the physics principles of uncertainty and complementarity. After lengthy theoretical debate over the building and use of the atom bomb, the moral ambiguity involved, and a Rashomon-like replaying of the scientists’ conversations and their actions’ potential consequences, audiences sink back into theatre seats, numbly in awe of the enormity of the universe as it turns on diminutive atomic particles and in amazement at the catalytic role humans can play with the toys, or weapons, they create. This is no simple play, no superficial subject matter. It takes artistic courage to produce this work, as it demands intense focus and full intellectual engagement of an audience at a level most theatre companies would shrink from.
Rising to the occasion in its signature, bold way, Ft. Worth’s Stage West presents a stellar, elegant production of this play, as faithful to Frayn’s production concept as humanly possible. Its three characters float across time, in and out of scenes with realistic or imagined dignity and cross over each other’s trajectories mimicking the movements of the atomic particles that inform the play’s subject matter. It’s a tour de force challenge for memorization alone. Stage West’s actors not only master the convoluted script laden with complex monologues and detailed scientific descriptions, they make it look easy. And interesting. Under the cool-tempered guidance of Stage West’s development director Dana Schultes, the cast uses the minimalist set and stylistic simplicity as springboard for delineating fully realized characters. As senior nuclear scientist Niels Bohr, Stage West Producing Director Jerry Russell presents a fascinating picture of a loving family man and altruistic human being cursed with the knowledge that his primary nuclear research could destroy life as we know it if it’s used as a weapon. What a legacy. He and his wife Margrethe, played with stoic pragmatism by Amber Devlin, face a terrible dilemma together: formerly trusted and beloved house guest and junior research partner Werner Heisenberg is coming to visit them, in clear alignment with Adolf Hitler, and they don’t know how to deal with his visit, if indeed they allow it. And do they have a real choice? Over and over, we see Heisenberg’s arrival played out, from differing perspectives, with different intention. The fate of the world could rest, literally, in these scientists’ hands and Bohr’s open, or shut, front door. Russell and Devlin create the very essence of a married couple totally at ease with one another as life and work partners but equally on edge and not necessarily in agreement over the upcoming visit. “Does one have the moral right to work on practical applications? If we could build a reactor we could build a bomb….”
As the ‘unknown quantity’ in this ‘equation’, Dallas Theater Center resident company member Chamblee Ferguson gives a haunting, nuanced performance as a scientist with clear objectives but also as a longtime family friend with doubts and regrets, and as a German loyal to his country’s destructive regime. Russell’s and Ferguson’s characters match each other on stage in energy and intellectual acuity, mixing sincere pleasantries while volleying theoretical challenges back and forth like the table tennis and chess games they have played together with highly competitive vengeance over the years. These are civilized, decent people, discussing and debating the most uncivilized of possibilities for mankind in the most rarified language in a dream-like setting. Chilling, off-putting, heart stopping: could our future have been held safe in so tenuous a balance?
Design elements enhance the surreal intensity of the work along with emphasizing the real destructive potential. Realistic costumes by Jim Covault and Peggy Kruger-O’Brien tangibly ground the performance, reinforcing the horrifying potential of actual discussion. Well-integrated lighting by Michael O’Brien and sound design by director Dana Schultes spin audience perceptions in and out of the theoretical realm and clearly enhance the symbolic atomic particle aspects of the performance.
Heavy going? At times. Playwright Frayn restates his interwoven themes more than necessary, and his play could have ended several scenes earlier than it does. But, just to see what Stage West’s artistic team does with the production is a mind-bending delight. Exquisitely realized performance art has universal appeal, doesn’t need to pander to prevailing fads or short attention spans to earn a favorable review or draw in an audience. Thank you, Stage West, for taking the risk to mount such a challenging, intellectual play, and for doing so very well.
In 1998, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen won: The Evening Standard Award for Best Play, Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play, Tony Award for Best Play and the Prix Molière.
Final performance: Sunday March 21, 3pm
Box office 817-784-9378, http://www.stagewest.org