Entertainment » Theatre

Copenhagen

by Kay Bourne
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 13, 2012
Matthew Zahnzinger as Bohr (L) and Kevin Kordis as Heisenberg (R) in Copenhagen. January 6-14, 2012 at The Factory Theatre, Boston
Matthew Zahnzinger as Bohr (L) and Kevin Kordis as Heisenberg (R) in Copenhagen. January 6-14, 2012 at The Factory Theatre, Boston  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

Theoretical physicists recollecting happy memories of the times they discussed complex science hardly seems the stuff of high drama, but the compelling "Copenhagen," incisively staged by Flat Earth Theatre, proves that it is. (The production ends an all too brief run on Saturday, January 14.)

Partly that is so because the play is a re-imagining of an historically factual meeting in Copenhagen in 1941 between the physicists Niels Bohr, 55, and Werner Heisenberg, 39, who were once mentor and student and close colleagues with their work together on quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle but who are now on the opposite sides of a political divide. The purpose of the meeting has never been made fully clear.

A possible outcome, however, of this meeting between a physicist working in Nazi Germany and the half Jewish Bohr and his assistant wife living in Nazi Occupied Denmark is the answer to why America beats out Nazi Germany in the making of the first atomic bomb.


Kevin Kordis as Heisenberg (L), Emily Hecht as Margrethe Bohr (C), and Matthew Zahnzinger as Bohr (R) in Copenhagen. January 6-14, 2012 at The Factory Theatre, Boston.  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

The spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr, and his wife Margrethe meet after their deaths to attempt to answer the question which Margrethe poses in the first line of the play: "Why did he come to Copenhagen?" The remaining two act drama is spent with these three people offering, debating, and rejecting theories that may answer that question.

Using conversation where there is uncertainty as the theatrical linchpin is very like the dramatic structure of "Red" now being performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company some ten blocks away from the modest Factory Theater (a rebuilt boiler room at the rear of the Piano Craft Building).

"Red" is about two years in painter Mark Rothko’s career, which like Michael Frayn’s play also engages your intellect and your feelings, and grips your attention throughout.

And, similarly, it does so through characters brushing against one another with the conflicts being internal rather than the traditional play form where the hero is pitted against a villain. Both also feature a father/son relationship which came into being as the characters moved forward in their professions.


Matthew Zahnzinger as Bohr (L) and Kevin Kordis as Heisenberg (R) in Copenhagen. January 6-14, 2012 at The Factory Theatre, Boston.  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

For Rothko in "Red," written by John Logan in 2009, it was a matter of whether the abstract expressionist could bring himself to paint for money versus painting at his soul’s dictate. A young assistant, who is also a painter, is in Rothko’s studio with him to help on the pricy commission Rothko has taken on.

In this play from Frayn, which was written earlier, in 2000, the dramatic conflict has to do with internal motives and memory hinged on everything from quantum mechanics to the death of a child to the fate of the world in the atomic age, to the ways friendships go sour.

In both, it is the inner misery of loss that may bring you to tears, which is, of course, the price of the ticket for going on living.

The set up cleverly devised by director Jake Scaltreto with scenic designer James Hayward for "Copenhagen" at the Factory Theater puts the 49 seats in a spiral that surrounds then snails off from the small round stage at the center. It is man at the center of the universe. The actors on occasion leave that middle point to pace throughout the theater perhaps in the design of the motion of the nuclear twins, protons and neutrons. At heated moments in the conversation and spoken memories, their walking pace quickens.


Emily Hecht as Margrethe Bohr (L), Matthew Zahnzinger as Bohr (C), and Kevin Kordis as Heisenberg (R) in Copenhagen. January 6-14, 2012 at The Factory Theatre, Boston.  (Source:Jake Scaltreto)

With the actors not two feet away, you are privy to every moment of the performances which, to begin with, never throw you out of the story but, even more importantly, draw you in.

Matthew Zahnzinger is exceptionally fine as Neils Bohr, the kindly aristocrat of the theoretical physicists set. You feel him weighing points as they are made judiciously, so it is startling when he has a burst of anger.

His wife Margrethe is angry at the start, that Heisenberg should endanger them by a visit which could be interpreted as collaborating with the enemy. It is a difficult mood to sustain without becoming psychologically shrill, but Emily Hecht manages to shade the character so we see the helpmate she is to her husband and appreciate her willingness to carry off with aplomb domestic life with a genius who has his blind spots when it comes to carrying his share of household duties.

Whatever Werner Heisenberg’s purpose in visiting the Bohrs, he’s under enormous pressure and a measure of suspicion from his country’s Nazi politicians and from his once dear friends. In Kevin Kordis’s excellent portrayal you see the man sweat.

As someone who recalls the fear we felt at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the flash of lights from lighting designer Matt Breton was unnervingly effective, so too the environmental soundscape devised by Chris Larson which played almost as a music score composed from bits of a table tennis battle to the mechanical grind of lab equipment as scientists investigate the roads to fission and chain reaction.

The dowdy wear of the times was well displayed by costume designer Cara Chiaramonte.

For many artists and scientists who worked in the decades immediately after the 1940s, the death camps and the atomic bomb were specters that haunted them; "Copenhagen" helps us understand why these ghosts were so personal.

"Copenhagen" is at the Factory Theater, the rear of 791 Tremont St. For more info you can go to www.flatearththeatre.com.


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