Transcript: Connie Meng Review aired Monday, April 14, 2003
Syracuse Stage, Syracuse, NY
Friday, April 4 through Sunday, April 20, 2003
The terrific production of COPENHAGEN now at Syracuse Stage gives everyone who missed it in Ottawa in February another opportunity to see this powerful play. As a matter of fact, the play and the characters are so complex I was delighted to be able to see it a second time.
COPENHAGEN is based on an actual secret meeting that took place in September 1941 in Nazi-occupied Denmark. At that meeting Danish physicist Niels Bohr met with his former student and colleague, German scientist Werner Heisenberg.
Wartime poses huge ethical and moral dilemmas for scientists, even for theoretical as opposed to experimental physicists. In Copenhagen Frayn speculates that this meeting may have affected the outcome of the race to build the atomic bomb. The subject of Bohr and Heisenberg's discussion is not known, but soon after the Germans, who were thought to be working on a bomb, suddenly stopped developing it.
From Frayn's perspective the characters are essentially ghosts. They exist in 1941, step back and observe 1941, and also move past it. At every level the play is about uncertainty. Was Heisenberg, who developed the Uncertainty Principle, a hero in blocking the German development of the bomb? Was he trying to pick Bohr's brain about the Allies' progress? Why hadn't he done the crucial calculation of critical mass? Most of all, why did he come to COPENHAGEN in 1941?
Andrew Lieberman's elegant set, with its concentric silver circles and benches on a shiny black platform are reminiscent of the atomic structure so much under discussion. The backdrop provides a perfect canvas for Les Dickert's subtle lighting effects. Jonathan Herter's music and sound also add a great deal to the production.
The cast is unusually strong and well balanced. Nancy Snyder gives a multi-level performance as Margrethe Bohr. Paul Whitworth is a powerhouse as Niels Bohr, and finds all the subtle nuances of the character, including his sense of humor. John Leonard Thompson grows as Heisenberg throughout the play, and his final monologue is mesmerizing. Michael Donald Edwards has directed this most complex play with skill and understanding.
COPENHAGEN may not be everyone's cup of tea with its exchanges about quantum mechanics and subatomic particle physics, but it's grounded in some very basic issues of friendship and responsibility. This brilliantly written play makes great demands of both the actors and the audience, but in the end it's truly rewarding. It leaves us pondering, as the playwright says, " the core of uncertainty at the heart of things."
On a scale of one to five, the Syracuse Stage production of COPENHAGEN gets
five oranges. For North Country Public Radio, I'm Connie Meng.