The fourth dimension of `Copenhagen'

Colonial Players' fine performances lift show heavy in atomic theory review

September 08, 2006|By MARY JOHNSON | MARY JOHNSON,Special to The Sun

An impatient "Are we going to have a whole season of this kind of stuff?" to a delighted "I love Michael Frayn!" was overheard at intermission of Copenhagen in the lobby of Colonial Players.

I, however, was with the ambivalent majority of theatergoers who attended the production's opening weekend.

Even Director Darice Clewell confessed in her program notes that after multiple readings and viewing two different productions, she "was not very interested in seeing Copenhagen again."

Only after reviewing the script a fourth time did this work appeal to her. Clewell realized, she wrote, that "Colonial Players' stage provides a fourth dimension - depth, and our oval playing space evokes the classic model of an electron's orbit."

British playwright Frayn's Copenhagen debuted in London in 1998. It recreates what might have happened when Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, invite Werner Heisenberg to their home in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1941. Heisenberg has traveled from Leipzig for this meeting with his former mentor and colleague.

Each of these people has different recollections of what occurred at the meeting, so scenes and dialogue are repeated with varying interpretations. Truth seems to exist in endless possibilities, echoing Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which deals with the unpredictability of moving particles.

Bohr, a morally and scientifically ethical father figure, helped young Heisenberg when he arrived at his lab nearly 20 years earlier. Bohr is half-Jewish and has misgivings about hosting his former student, who might want him to help develop a German atom bomb, but fondly welcomes him.

Grateful for his mentor's earlier kindness, Heisenberg claims he wants Bohr to help him delay the development of the atom bomb in Germany.

Inherently stiff and ill at ease, Heisenberg only displays any discernible human warmth when he talks about music. In later scenes, he gains sympathy when describing the World War II devastation of Germany.

Margrethe, who never liked Heisenberg, opposes his visit. Having little knowledge of science, Margrethe is designated interpreter by the two protagonists, who must make whatever scientific topic that arises clear to her.

Having enjoyed a recorded PBS performance of Copenhagen about four years ago, I expected to find engrossing theater despite its cerebral dialogue-heavy aspects and inherent lack of action.

But the PBS version seemed less weighted down by World War II-era quantum physics - a subject beyond my meager scientific grasp that in Colonial's version droned on with all the excitement of an interminable college lecture.

In fairness, one person's tedium is another's treasure, as evidenced by my engineer husband who was more fully engrossed with this play than any other in recent memory.

Colonial Players' production boasts strong performances from the actors, who learned reams of difficult scientific dialogue. Danny Brooks is masterfully convincing as Bohr.

Dan Kavanaugh stammered a few times on Sunday, briefly interrupting the dialogue's rhythm, but he succeeded admirably in conveying Heisenberg's humanity and emotion when he described the devastation of his bombed-out homeland.

As Margrethe, Kathleen Ruttum gives a stunning performance that helps make the science understandable and communicates common sense and psychological understanding along with her character's protectiveness of her spouse.

Copenhagen should prove engaging fare for anyone with an interest in reconstructing history and considering the infinite possibilities of what might have been, and as a beautifully written and balanced study of why people act as they do.

It should be doubly rewarding to scientists who seldom hear their jargon so well spoken.

Copenhagen continues weekends at Colonial Players, 108 East St. in Annapolis, through Sept. 30. To order tickets, visit

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