Hopkins' skillfully done `Copenhagen'

THEATER

March 04, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Atomic physics, quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, complementarity. You might expect these subjects to come up at the Johns Hopkins University - but not on stage at a community theater. And yet, what better community theater to tackle Michael Frayn's devilishly complex Tony Award-winning play, Copenhagen, than Theatre Hopkins?

A play that tests the mettle even of accomplished professional actors, Copenhagen is receiving an impressively skillful production under Suzanne Pratt's direction.

Frayn's script is a kind of Rashomon of atomic physics. The plot is based on a mysterious visit German physicist Werner Heisenberg paid to his Danish mentor, Niels Bohr, in 1941.

No one knows exactly what happened during this visit. Frayn's play, which also includes the character of Bohr's wife, Margrethe, makes supposition after supposition, as the three characters go over the same ground again and again, trying to make sense of it.

One reason Pratt's cast is so effective is that each actor establishes and sustains a distinct personality for his or her character. Another is that, taking her lead from various references in the script, Pratt treats these characters as a family unit.

James Gallagher's Heisenberg is the surrogate son torn between rebelling against his parents by striking out on his own and desperately trying to win their approval. Robert Riggs' Bohr can be jovial and warmly paternal, but cross him and he becomes an angry bulldog of a man - the proud father outraged by the defection of a favorite son.

The performance at the core of this production, however, is that of Cherie Weinert as Margrethe, the mother who would like to keep peace in the family, but whose first loyalty will always be to her husband. Though Weinert's emotionalism initially seems out of keeping with the more restrained depictions of the physicists, by the second act it is her heartfelt portrayal that breathes life into the production.

The actress appears to take her lead from Bohr's remark to his wife: "You have a tendency to make everything personal."

"Because everything is personal!" Margrethe replies.

Still, it must be said that much of Pratt's staging has a static quality that makes Frayn's excessively talky drama seem far too much like a lecture - a problem, admittedly, that is built into the script.

Why did Heisenberg, who was then head of the German atomic research program, visit the half-Jewish Bohr, who was under surveillance in Nazi-occupied Denmark? Frayn favors some theories over others, but his central thesis is that we can never completely know someone else's intentions - or perhaps even our own.

Because of this, the playwright resists wrapping things up neatly in the end. Combined with the challenging subject matter, this open-endedness will frustrate some theatergoers. But then, nothing about this play is easy. (I strongly recommend watching the two brief video interviews with the playwright that the theater is showing before and after each performance.) Most community theaters wouldn't - and probably shouldn't - attempt Copenhagen. Theatre Hopkins does it proud.

Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through March 14. Tickets are $15. Call 410-516-7159.

The next `Look'

The latest offering in Center Stage's First Look series of staged readings will be Permanent Collection, by Thomas Gibbons. Bearing some striking similarities to events at Philadelphia's Barnes Foundation in the 1990s, the play focuses on an African-American CEO who is named director of the art collection of an eccentric millionaire.

Permanent Collection premiered in October at the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, where the playwright is based.

Directed by Irene Lewis, the First Look readings will take place in the Pearlstone Theater at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., at 8 p.m. March 11 and 12. Tickets are $10 ($5 for students, seniors and Center Stage subscribers). For more information, call 410-332-0033.

In other news from Center Stage, the theater has announced that, due to numerous requests from patrons, seats will be assigned for subscription shows in the flexible-configuration Head Theater beginning next season.

"Although the logistics are complicated, this really is just about making sure that that space reflects our audience philosophy in every way - affordability and a real commitment to high-quality service, which some of our patrons have felt is lacking when they aren't assigned a specific seat," said Barbara Watson, director of audience development. She added that the assigned seating will also allow the box office to establish a wider price range in the fourth-floor theater.

Festival readings

The final marathon session of staged readings of plays under consideration for the 2004 Baltimore Playwrights Festival will be held Saturday at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Scripts to be read are: Picturing Grace, by Molly Best Tinsely; Tomorrow was Lonely, by Tim Bruns; and Holding On, by Ted Westermann. The readings begin at 11 a.m. and are free and open to the public. Each is followed by a discussion with the playwright. For more information call 410-276-2153.

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