Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Werner Heisenberg (Harry Smith) initiated a meeting in Copenhagen during September, 1941 to discuss the implications of an atomic bomb with Niels Bohr (David Adkins). Bohr's wife Margrethe (Corinna May) also attends. The stage consists of a raised circular platform and three chairs. During the course of the drama, projections designer Adam Lewis's images provide context for Frayn's dialogue. Even if Heisenberg called for the gathering, a pervasive question throughout centers on his reason for doing so.
Heisenberg wonders if people of science should be cooperative when it comes to potentially creating a drastically destructive weapon: a massive bomb. He brings an uncertainty principle concerning measurement of variables, and there's a repeated focus on what he calls complementarity: two different perspectives cannot establish a common ground. Heisenberg is German but not a Nazi. He seems to hope that Bohr, born in Copenhagen, could agree with him and discourage work on the bomb. Margrethe, also from Denmark, interprets, narrates, sometimes offers commentary and explanation. The men on the stage circle, parry, philosophize, argue more vociferously, and each will, at times, just speak past the other. Bohr tends to be more prudent as Heisenberg accelerates his physical pace. Each is anxious but Heisenberg, the more tightly wound individual, borders upon frantic.
Did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen because of his moral outrage and personal objection to building a weapon of war? Bohr does not appear to think so. At this point, it is important to note that the Frayn play does not pretend to replicate history. It is true that Heisenberg did indeed journey to see Bohr in 1941 but the play is fictional. Its scientific import and implications might be difficult for someone not well-versed to comprehend. Hence, those who might have taken a Physics for Literature Majors course as undergraduates will find that of little value here. The playwright certainly attempts to demonstrate a connection between science and humanity. Even if the characters do not speak constantly of the bomb, it hovers like an apparition or shadow.
Niels Bohr, the older of the two men and a prominent physicist, once had an assistant who happened to be Werner Heisenberg. Bohr has a partial Jewish heritage while Heisenberg moved on to become a prominent German scientist. These men walk around one another and the production has a cyclical feel to it. Margrethe hasn't as many words as the others but she is far from insignificant. She watches her husband and she is an interlocutor as she injects herself into conversation.
This is one difficult play and the three actors are extraordinary. Harry Smith's Heisenberg is vexed, apoplectic, and hugely anguished. Bohr, as Adkins plays him, is exasperated, upset and looks like he would rather be elsewhere. May brings a Margrethe who misses nothing and does not waste a word. The seasoned performers never miss a beat and their timing is impeccable.
Director Eric Hill is a multi-sided dramatist who well understands actors since he, himself, has established himself as a gifted performer. His adaptations have been singularly exceptional. He worked from Euripides to create a stunning Visions of an Ancient Dreamer at StageWest in Springfield, MA more than three decades ago by employing some of the techniques he learned from Tadashi Suzuki, a Japanese master whose form of stylized theater is mesmerizing. The connection here is that Hill introduces each of the portions of Copenhagen with a Suzuki slow walk to the performance space. However brief, those moments are engrossing and fascinating. Hill is also an intellectual: erudite and smart. Thus, he is able to combine theatrical acumen with sharp intelligence as he helps sculptCopenhagen. All of that said, the perplexing play remains one of predicaments.
Copenhagen runs through October 29, 2023, at Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, 6 East St., Stockbridge MA. For information and tickets, please call 413-997-4444 or visit www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.