A major transition or two could be given more time to breathe, an actor occasionally misses a subtlety, a light cue is rarely a little obtrusive in Perisphere Theater’s production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. But it’s essentially an ideal production.
Frayn won a Tony award for his script, and it’s tempting, 16 years later, to think that he deserved it primarily for managing to understand – and make understandable – the entire world of midcentury theoretical physics. The web of theories and colleagues that surround Niels Bohr (John Decker) and Werner Heisenberg (Ben McRae), as well as Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Sue Struve), is so richly portrayed that you just have to let it wash over you and accept that all these details are historically accurate. Like the production itself, the play turns on two questions: what did the Nazi-employed Heisenberg say to Danish Jew Bohr, during the former’s 1941 visit to occupied Copenhagen? And, later, why did he say it?
This laser-focus on the tiniest of moments illuminates the entire history of the twentieth century and raises questions relevant to this day, as physicists fret about giving “instruments of mass murder” to a bully, and Heisenberg muses that he carries his “surveillance around like an infectious disease.” The trouble is nobody – not Bohr or Heisenberg, nor even Margrethe – can agree exactly what happened in 1941. Examining that event as ghosts after their deaths, the three characters run circles around the stage, beg the audience to indulge them new “drafts” of their recollections, and jump freely in and out of time.
The play’s greatest achievement, as well as director Heather Benjamin’s, is that this all flows naturally and wittily. Others have tackled Copenhagen with a somber and heavy tone, but there is a great joy in Benjamin’s version that penetrates the theory-heavy atom-bomb drama. (Struve gets all the best lines and underplays them cannily, as Margrethe pierces the pomposity of the proceedings in quick little asides.)
That’s not to say you won’t get lost – perhaps someone with PhDs in quantum mechanics, deontological ethics, the psychology of memory, and World War II history could keep up entirely, but we mere mortals cannot. But if Frayn wanted us to follow 100%, he would have written a novel to take in at our own pace; instead, the plot dances around us like so many particles and waves. Go with the knowledge that the human relationships and doubts are what you really need to keep up with, and you’ll be fine getting lost on the rest. (And the few really important points, like the difference between uranium-235 and uranium-238, are hammered on enough that you learn them by the time you need them.)
closes December 11, 2016
Details and tickets
Those human relationships are wonderfully illuminated by the three actors; the professorial Decker lets down his guard to the charmingly prideful and curious McRae, who is alternately chastened and encouraged by the earthier Struve, who relishes in her clear and equal role as the voice of reason in her relationship with Decker, and so forth. The trio make you believe they have decades of friendship, intellectual debate, and scientific trust behind them, which they enjoy and explore even in the afterlife. Decker and McRae played these parts in a 2013 mounting under Benjamin’s direction, so that is no surprise on their part, but newcomer Struve fits in just as comfortably.
Yet despite its relevance and optimism, Copenhagen is without a doubt a challenging piece to sit through, especially in the over-warm Capital Fringe space (which too-frequently disrespects the work happening in the theater by playing loud pop music out in its attached bar, even though the bar is empty while the patrons are watching).
In that light, this production ought to be toured actively to universities and physics classes; while it gains considerably from E-Hui Woo’s lighting shifts guiding us through the time-jumps, its core of three actors performing living history is translatable to non-theater spaces.
Between this and their summer inaugural production, Mamet’s Oleanna , the most we can guess as to Perisphere’s future is that they will do a high-quality job with politically thoughtful and well-known works. There’s an abundance of good things within this show that Perisphere could zero in on as their hallmark and brand, so we may well hope that they will continue to find their niche and personality.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn . Directed by Heather Benjamin . Featuring John Decker, Ben McRae, Sue Struve . Producer: Alicia Goodman . Production Stage Manager: Amanda Gamage . Lighting Designer: E-hui Woo . Sound Designer: Edward Moser . Costume Designer: Asia McCallum . Dramaturg/Rehearsal Stage Manager: Bob Ashby . Produced by Perisphere Theater . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.