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BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis Splits Atoms in COPENHAGEN

Theatre Memphis' Next Stage has girded its loins and taken on the challenge of staging Michael Frayn's dense and difficult COPENHAGEN, and it must have known from the outset that such an esoteric piece will offer rewards to a select audience. The very title itself (though certainly appropriate) is not exactly audience-inviting; and the language, redolent with physics jargon and theories, is tantamount to watching a foreign film or listening to an opera without subtitles. Indeed, I had been warned by a very erudite theatregoer who had just seen it the previous night that there would be an exodus after intermission: There was. In spite of all this, the play can be richly rewarding for those who remain seated - even those whose only previous experience with physics came in the form of the woefully miscast Denise Richards as research physicist "Dr. Christmas Jones" in the "James Bond" adventure THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH (my jaw dropped at that one - as it did recently while watching Jennifer Lopez assay the role of an instructor of classics in THE BOY NEXT DOOR . . . with "Minnie Mouse"-voiced Kristen Chenowith as an Assistant Principal!)

Frayn's scientists know "their stuff" - and Frayn seems unapologetically determined to portray them as the complicated, intelligent beings that they were: Audience attendance be damned. I rather like that about this play. I myself am no expert in the subject (I'm more akin to Garrison Keillor's "English majors," and, to paraphrase "Prissy" in GONE WITH THE WIND, "Lawdy, Miss Scarlett, I don't know nuthin' 'bout splittin' no atoms"). However, I think that if people try too hard to understand the "science" in the play, they will miss the inherent human drama.

The real situation on which the drama is based covers a late September/early October meeting in 1941 between revered physicist Dr. Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and former student and colleague Werner Heisenberg, now one of the few remaining Jewish scientists allowed to continue research leading to the development of a superweapon. In reality, no one knows why this meeting ended in disappointment and alienation; and, in the nature of the "hit and miss" inquiries into the laws of physics, the plays presents one character's recall of the meeting, resets itself, and allows another to offer a version. In short, the play seems to proceed like a series of tests; only these tests examine not only physics, but the truth about individual motivations and relationships between both characters and nations. The very blocking and movement of the actors (obviously guided by the skillful director Stephen Huff) seems to replicate the movement of particles (the floor on which this is all played appears to be a black chalkboard adorned with physics problems).

Actually, while watching the play, I was reminded of Alexander Pope's lines from "An Essay on Man":

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state, / A being darkly wise, and rudely great, / With too much knowledge for the sceptic side, / With too much knowledge for the stoic's pride, . . . .

The two scientists here are like children playing with a dangerous toy (more specifically, physical properties that will lead to the atomic bomb); in point of fact, one of them has a backstory involving a "cap pistol." As they compete to find the answer (and, frustratingly, they can't seem to do that without each other), they seem to possess the kind of hubris which afflicted the heroes of classic tragedy. In fact, tragic overtones - personal and global - hover about the play (it is no "accident" that both have frequented Hamlet's Elsinore - Hamlet clashed with his "father" Claudius, and Danish Dr. Niels Bohr is a "father figure" to the brash and brilliant Werner Heisenberg, who, in their imagined meeting, may or may not be colluding with Nazis).

Thankfully, all the jargon is clarified by the sensible, mistrusting Margrethe, who acts as a kind of translator and chorus and cuts through the physics terms to explain the proceedings in human terms.

The performers here are all terrific. Jason Spitzer, when he's not directing plays, generally serves as a character actor, has a bona fide lead here; and his grand, conscientious, fatherly "Bohr" (a bit caught up in his reputation and prone to lapses of memory) is one of his best performances; and as "Margrethe," Mary Buchignani is clear-eyed and strong (I love her 1940's hair style - so "Sydney Guilaroff"). Gregory Alexander's "energizer bunny" scientist is rash and eager - and also tormented by the fact that he may be helping a government led by monsters. (I'd like to see what Alexander could do with "Stanley" in STREETCAR; he's capable of strong, vital leading man roles.)

If you go to see this play, remember: You DON'T have to be science major to watch these characters clash and come together. If you're not careful, you'll be in a "can't see the forest for the trees" dilemma. Concentrate on characters and motivations, and you'll be in a proper frame of mind. This is a play that refuses to "stoop" to trot out a Denise Richards physicist, and though it might find a more appropriate audience in Oak Ridge, Memphis is lucky to have it - at least through March 1.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)