Jan 27, 2006 — The prize-winning play Copenhagen has opened at Vermont Stage in Burlington and runs through February 5. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.
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?
This is the first production I've seen in the FlynnSpace where the actors seem constricted. Jenny Fulton has designed a spare set that consists primarily of a low elliptical form filled with sand as the stage floor that allows only very restricted movement. Perhaps the staging by director Stephan Golux is meant to convey the movement of particles within an atom, but it leaves the impression that the actors are trapped in a sandbox. COPENHAGEN, with its intense and complex dialogue, needs more movement to give both the actors and the audience space to breathe.
The lighting designed by John B. Forbes is very good and helps the audience orient themselves with the shifts in time. Zachary Williamson's sound design is also good, and I especially like the use of the actors' recorded voices bleeding into the live performance.
Donald Grody is excellent as Niels Bohr. He finds all the subtle nuances of the character, including the sense of humor. Mark Nash gives a solid performance as Walter Heisenberg, but in Act I his emphasis on Heisenberg's Germanic reserve makes him miss some of the fire and brilliance of the character. This fire, along with a moving portrayal of Heisenberg's underlying humanity, comes much more to the fore in Act II.
Melissa Lourie misses some of Margarethe Bohr's complexity. Her character acts as a fulcrum between the two men, and by keeping her highly visible throughout the play the director has undercut much of the effectiveness of her interventions.
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, patriotism and the ethical concerns of scientific research in a time of war. This brilliantly written play makes great demands of both the actors and the audience, but in the end it's 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 Vermont Stage production of COPENHAGEN gets four ferry boats. For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.