note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
One viewing, in my opinion, of Michael Frayn’s Tony award winning mega-play, COPENHAGEN, is not enough. I started to understand it the second time I saw it but I started to like it the third time---at the Publick Theatre this summer, through September 10th. Do call because it runs in repertory with Amy Freed’s adorable spoof, THE BEARD OF AVON, which has nothing to do with physics. COPENHAGEN, about the very real meeting of Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg toward the end of WWII, has everything to do with physics, relatively speaking. Sorry, sorry. That guy isn’t even in the play.
Director Diego Arciniegas’ clear vision of the work would pique anyone’s curiosity about science—but more germain, at least to a perennial anti-nuclear activist like me, is the placement center stage of the big question, which Bohr and Heisenberg iterate from each one’s own personal perspective: “Should we/they have developed --and used -- the bomb?” Heisenberg, most famous for his ‘Uncertainty Principle’ did not, although he tried to for the Germans (or did he?). Bohr came to the U.S. and worked with the Manhattan Project—which, as we know, did develop the bomb. Talk about uncertainty, Enrico Fermi, as the story goes, was taking side bets before the first detonation in New Mexico, that a chain reaction would obliterate the whole continent.
Even though it didn’t, scientists still have grave concerns about smashing the atom. Every year the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates how close we are to a nuclear end. Most of the scientists who worked at Los Alamos, with the infamous exception of Edward Teller, have called for disarmament. Bohr himself organized the first Atoms for Peace Conference.
Frayn puts all this into human terms, imagining what personal lives these scientists had, filled with ambition, triumph and tragedy. He puts his own twist on what transpired when the Allies’ most famous scientist met with the Axis’ wunderkind. And he cleverly has the three characters (Bohr, Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife) circling each other like electrons. The Publick production opens up the play so that it spills on to the walkways and grounds around the actual stage. When the characters leave the stage for a walk, they actually do—which I think is an improvement over the stagebound, concept-bound, somewhat claustrophobic New York production.
One of the lovely aspects of the Publick Theatre is that you get to see the same actors, often season after season, performing many different roles. You can see Gabriel Kuttner, as the elegant German physicist one night, then watch his shenanigans the next, as poor Shakespeare in THE BEARD OF AVON. The same is true with Barry Press, as the eminent Danish scientist in COPENHAGEN, then see him dither in 17th century England in the Shakespeare spoof. Suzanne Nitter, who has performed many leading roles at the Publick, here portrays Bohr’s fiercely loyal wife. The beauty of Frayn’s play is that you will have an opinion about what happened on stage, just as each of the characters does about what happened when the two met in 1941. The man sitting next to me didn’t see what I saw for heaven sake. So you go to the Publick and see what you think.