Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Wednesday --Frayn's Copenhagen

Wednesday evening was Press Opening for the Publick Theatre's production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen. A number of actors were attending the opening on comps, and I met with old friends for a quick picnic on the bank of the Charles River between the time we had to pick up our tickets and the start of the show.
The 2000 London production of Copenhagen-- directed by the brilliant Michael Blakemore -- lives in my memory as one of the best things I've seen in the last decade. Briefly, Frayn examines what happened when German physicist Werner Heisenberg-- who had been almost an adopted son to Niels Bohr his wife Margrethe when he was a graduate student-- went to visit them at their home in Copenhagen in 1941, while Denmark was under Nazi occupation. What did Heisenberg want? How did Bohr respond? More generally, what are the moral obligations that apply to people who are on opposite sides in wartime? How shall we, and history, judge these men?-- the younger of whom ran the Nazi version of the Manhattan Project but never succeeded in killing anyone, while his saintly mentor escaped to help the Americans build an atomic bomb that killed hundreds of thousands? There are statements on record by both physicists of what happened on that day in 1941, and they do not agree. Each had reasons to lie or conceal, and colleagues and historians are still arguing passionately about what they did or did not do or say. But in the play all three characters are dead, and the reasons for lies are behind them. They, and we, are in search of pure truth-- and in our observations we are constrained by Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle.
I was interested to see whether a play that I thought of as peculiarly intense and intimate would "carry" in the open-to-the-trees-and-air "Elizabethan" space at the Publick, and whether a three actor piece in which the only thing that happens is thought could hold the attention of a Boston audience under picnic-in-the-park conditions.
I'm going to time-travel now, and quote here the Boston Globe review that appeared on Friday:
"A complex lesson in physics and history
In 'Copenhagen,' the truth -- and everything else -- is uncertain
By Devra First, Globe Staff | July 29, 2006
Michael Frayn's Copenhagen grapples with the ethics of nuclear weapons, the race to obtain them, who should have them, and who should make that call. Hmm, wonder why the Publick Theatre thought now would be a good time to put it on? ..... the Publick sets off the complexity with welcome simplicity. The outdoor stage is mostly bare. Two walkways, a few grassy slopes for the actors to traverse, and some trees are all that's really needed to convey a home with grounds private enough for two friends on opposite sides of a war to converse.... (Susanne) Nitter lends Margrethe a brittle charm, and (Barry )Press's Bohr is passionate, if not always quite as charismatic as he ought to be. (Gabriel) Kuttner turns in the strongest performance: He brings nuance to a morally questionable Heisenberg.... Copenhagen is a smart play. In the wrong hands, it could seem awfully satisfied with itself for being so smart. This production treats it with the right amount of restraint...."

Personally, I thought it a surprisingly good production. Director Diego Arciniegas has fitted the actors with microphones, and the semi-disembodied voices are loud and clear enough to assure that every word of a complex thought can be heard, while adding a sense of scientific detachment to the Elysian procedings. Electronic enhancement frees the men to be conversational in those woods that surround the amplitheatre and to stroll across a footbridge and onto the riverbank as they converse or relate to each other as nucleus and orbiting electron. One consequence of these wide open spaces is that the pace is slower than it was in London, which allows us time to catch up to the physicists' thinking rather than straining to understand while they are dashing ahead of us at the speed of genius. Yes, the intensity is dialed down, but the effect is as if this is not a once-and-forever moment with the weight of a single Judgment Day, but rather a recurring conundrum with which we too must grapple as long as there is human kind or human consciousness. All three actors are 10 to 15 years too young for their roles, and the Boston Bohrs do suffer somewhat from the comparison with their older and weightier London conterparts. Gabriel Kuttner, though, is simply amazing. Not only is his Heisenberg utterly unlike his repertory role as Shakespeare in the Beard of Avon, both are completely different from the set of roles he played in "Talking To Terrorists". It wouldn't surprise me if some day I find myself boasting to my grandchildren that I once shared a stage with him.


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