Arts & Events
There is something special about seeing Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” in Berkeley. Oppenheimer’s home, the Lawrence lab’s cyclotron, and this small city’s part in the history of the creation of the nuclear bomb makes it a special place to see it, a masterstroke to produce it here, and a must for Berkeley-ites of intellect to attend.
Indra’s Net Theatre, founded and directed by Bruce Coughran, presents “Copenhagen” as their inaugural production in the Osher Theatre Complex in the Arts Passage at 2055 Center Street through this weekend ending Sunday, May 26 with performances at 7:30 on Thu-Fri-Sat and 2 pm on Sunday.
“Copenhagen,” which won the Tony award for best play, is about the friendship between Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr who together formulated the explanation of the physical universe we know as quantum mechanics in their “Copenhagen Interpretation.” The meetings are at Bohr’s home in Copenhagen during WW2 when Denmark is occupied by the Third Reich. Bohr’s mother was Jewish. Heisenberg is a German and heading the weaponizing of fissionable material in Germany.
It is a nearly perfectly written play about intellectual and moral conflict. Frayn makes us witness to the strain of the aforementioned struggle and provides insight into the personal and professional contests between these wizards who changed the world, people smarter than almost all the rest of us.
(For those who didn’t know or remember what these Uber-intellects discovered and theorized—like I was before I saw the play—a précis of their accomplishments can be found at the bottom of this review under the heading “Background.”)
Michael Kern Cassidy* convincingly portrays Heisenberg, torn between his patriotism to his country that he knows is corrupt and his loyalty to science, humanity, and his father-figure Bohr. Blonde and poised, Cassidy’s portrayal with reserved demeanor and calm, noble bearing is the very image of a proper Teutonic intellectual.
Cassidy’s portrayal is the highlight of the play, second only to Frayn’s superlative playwriting which blends personal and historical fact together while almost solely relying on the words the men spoke. He makes the science understandable while revealing the psyches of these God-like revealers of the secrets of the universe. This moment in history “when everything changed forever” demands the audience’s concentration while rewarding us with an awe-inspiring understanding.
Coughran’s production is the third version this reviewer has seen of “Copenhagen.” His insightful interpretation— making Heisenberg the central character—differs from the other two, and makes for a dramatically superior interpretation. Having a pivotal main character rather than sharing equally among the three—as was done in the previous two versions—seems to more accurately represent the writing. The other two versions had the actors firing constant salvoes of language at a “theatrical” speed approximating 180 wpm, perhaps to show the superior rate of fire of the characters’ preternatural synapses. But the material is too dense to understand at that heightened rate. Delivery here was maybe 160 wpm, and though it runs 2hrs 30min which includes intermission, it is very understandable.
There are problems with the production, however.
As preamble to the piece, the Mozart piano sonata in A minor and a Beethoven piece are played competently if stolidly by Ben Malkevitch, but the recital is a bit too long for our anticipation of the play to begin.
Robert Ernst*, one of the founders of the legendary Blake Street Hawkeyes, is less convincing in the role of Bohr, assuming a Berkeley casualness with passionately animated gestures. He alternates between histrionic exuberance and postured introspection with folded arms and covered mouth, or else with hands shoved into pockets or defiantly on hips. That flamboyance and relaxed American easiness seemed to this reviewer to be at odds with the assumed European properness of the scion of a university professor, born in 1885 into a staid Nordic world of manners and protocol.
The character of Margrethe Bohr, his wife, typist, and sounding board, is undertaken by Karol Strempke, whose regal profile and upswept silvering blonde hair finished in a French braid bun is visually the image of Dronning or "Queen" Margrethe as she was known. However, her use of a tremulous voice to show emotion and stilted manner undercuts the image. Both actors seem to be performing rather than interacting realistically with one another.
The sound design by Teddy Hulsker duplicates the description of the action by the players in an error of artistic “indicating”: when Heisenberg describes walking down the gravel drive and opening the door, it is accompanied by the sound effects of walking on gravel and a door opening; when table tennis is mentioned, we hear the momentary sound of a ping pong ball knocked by a paddle, etc. Verbal description is meant by playwrights to trigger the images in the audience’s mind, and such aural duplication is distracting and interferes with that process.
The lighting by Maxx Kurzunski, recent Critics Circle award-winner, complements the action and is at times properly dramatic but hurts the aesthetic by using a bank of red lights to signal conflict and distress.
Costuming consists of modern suits for the men and a warm embroidered sweater for Margrethe, and missed the opportunity to transport us to the 1940’s with the eye-pleasing fashion of that great era for couture. Bohr doesn’t wear a tie (there are few photos of him without one). There was no costumer listed in the program, and in spare theatre productions like this, the use of costumes is one production value that can be capitalized on to help us enter the era of the drama.
Lili Smith’s set design consists of three Danish modern chairs, a small couch, two white circular rugs and hanging tapestries of the outdoors with a babbling brook (again, the sound of a babbling brook throughout is disconcerting and competes with understanding the words and sometimes abstruse ideas). The set is spare and more recognizable as the furnishings of a Berkeley starter apartment than of a European drawing room of the 1940’s. The comfortable leather chairs and vintage love seat in the lobby seemed more appropriate to that era of drawing rooms than the furnishings on the stage.
The round white rugs seemed almost a metaphor for the production: they were lovely and nearly perfect in design, but they turned up at the edges to reveal the matting beneath which interfered with the picture.
The staging employs much unmotivated rising and sitting with obvious counter-crosses, and Coughran allows the players to employ those over-used moves of a consoling hand on shoulder or of grasping the other’s arms in a display of sincerity. Too often an actor is positioned too close to the audience during a monologue which breaks the “empathetic distance” and temporarily bursts the bubble of our suspended disbelief.
Regardless of this production’s short-comings, it is an inexpensive, enlightening, and enjoyable evening which should not be missed.
P.S. Bring a pillow—the seats in the Osher Studio supply little cushioning.
P.P.S. I had the good fortune to attend the one-time pre-show talk with Dr. David Presti, molecular biologist and senior lecturer at UCB, who recounted the scientific lineage from current Berkeley professors back to Bohr, and whose succinct and eye-opening description of the cyclotron was worth coming out just to hear. The background he offered significantly informed the understanding and enjoyment of the play.
Indra’s Net Theater plans to produce plays that deal with science and scientific inquiry and their human and philosophical implications. The new theater derives its name from the quotation from the Rig Veda, “In the heavens of India, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you see all the others reflected in it.”
More info at http://www.indrasnettheater.com/
*member, Actors’ Equity Association, which is celebrating its 100 anniversary of protecting actors and stage managers by laboring to improve working conditions in the American Theatre and to provide them with a fair chance to prove their talent, to receive reasonable compensation for their work, and to be treated with dignity and fairness.
Bohr was a Danish physicist who developed the “Bohr model of the atom” with the atomic nucleus at the centre and electrons in orbit around it, which he compared to the planets orbiting the Sun. He helped develop quantum mechanics, in which electrons move from one energy level to another in discrete steps, instead of continuously. For this he won the Nobel Prize in 1922. From the 20’s through the 50’s he was known as “the Pope” in the hierarchy of physicists (“Einstein was God”) and pilgrimages were made to his home in Copenhagen to discuss great thought that changed the world. After escaping to the US, he worked at Los Alamos on the A-bomb dropped on Japan.
Heisenberg is best known as Bohr’s student, then as his assistant, his collaborator, his rival, his enemy, and finally his prodigal son.
At 26, he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Leipzig. He won the Nobel ten years after Bohr
For his new theory of quantum mechanics and the applications of it which resulted especially in the discovery of allotropic forms of hydrogen, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for 1932 when he was only 23.
His new theory was based only on what can be observed, that is to say, on the radiation emitted by the atom. We cannot, he said, always assign to an electron a position in space at a given time, nor follow it in its orbit, so that we cannot assume that the planetary orbits postulated by Niels Bohr actually exist. Mechanical quantities, such as position, velocity, etc. should be represented, not by ordinary numbers, but by abstract mathematical structures called "matrices" and he formulated his new theory in terms of matrix equations.
Later Heisenberg stated his famous principle of uncertainty, which lays down that the determination of the position and momentum of a mobile particle necessarily contains errors the product of which cannot be less than the quantum constant h and that, although these errors are negligible on the human scale, they cannot be ignored in studies of the atom.
(Thanks to Wikipedia—contribute to them soon.)