BWW Review: Michael Frayn's Thought-Provoking COPENHAGEN at Tampa Rep Starts the Year Off Right
"Explain it to me? You couldn't even explain it to each other!" --Margrethe Bohr to her husband, Niels, and to Werner Heisenberg in COPENHAGEN
Tampa Rep has done it again. Last year they presented a compelling play entitled Heisenberg, and now they start off 2019 with COPENHAGEN, a work centered around the meeting of Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. (There is even a mistake in the program where on one page it correctly labels COPENHAGEN and on another it humorously misprints "Heisenberg Staff.") This makes me wonder: Is there a play called Bohr out there that they can produce next year?
They've also done it again because they have produced a beguiling, vital piece of work that needs to be seen by all serious theatre goers. With the uber-smart COPENHAGEN, 2019 has started off on just the right note. And Tampa Rep keeps pushing the envelope, a small theatre with a big heart and an even bigger mind. My only qualm, and this is a good qualm to have, is that I wish they produced more shows in their seasons.
With main characters like Werner Heisenberg (a theoretical physicist known for his uncertainty principle), and Niels Bohr (the Nobel Prize winning physicist whose specialty was atomic structure and quantum theory), you don't come into a show like COPENHAGEN expecting a retread of Grown Ups 2. But don't get me wrong; it's not a dour piece, never boring, so don't expect some barren Strindberg groaner, either. (The lead character's name is Bohr, not Bore.) COPENHAGEN is quite entertaining, fun in all of its nonlinear glory, hopscotching through time and space, from ghostly consciousness to earthly debates. It's a mystery of sorts, one that plays out a variety of possibilities: Why did Werner Heisenberg visit Copenhagen in 1941? What did the German want with the Danish Bohr during the Hitler era? What exactly did he say to Niels Bohr on their brief walk together, away from any potential eavesdroppers? The reason could be anything, from self-pride to the potential end of the world as we know it in a race for the creation of the first atomic bomb.
The playwright, Michael Frayn, is best known for scribing my favorite farce, Noises Off. As different as they are, COPENHAGEN and Noises Off share an undeniable smartness in plot and language. And Noises off is also supremely inventive, playing with time in a way, replaying the same scene from a play-within-a-play both on the stage and behind the scenes. COPENHAGEN is equally inventive but messier, more free-flowing in its ideas, but also more unpredictable and in its own way, more enjoyable on a far deeper level. It's not as easily accessible as Noises Off, nor would you expect it to be; and it doesn't need the "perfect" set the way Noises Off does. COPENHAGEN is a play about ideas, both abstract and concrete, fantastical and historical, small as an atom and large as an atomic bomb explosion.
But without three wonderfully drawn characters, these ideas would run right past us without purpose and the show wouldn't be worth our time. Thankfully, Frayn has created a trio of smart, likable individuals, and in this production, they are inhabited by three of the finest actors in our area.
Since first seeing him onstage a half decade ago, I am still waiting for that moment that I dislike a Ned Averill-Snell performance. And it hasn't happened yet; he's batting a thousand with the shows I've seen him in, even garnering my Best Actor selection two years in a row. As Bohr, a character striving to put Man back in the center of the universe, he is the anchor of COPENHAGEN. There's one instance when Averill-Snell's Bohr thanks another character for his life, and he chokes up, stifling tears; it's so real, a small reaction, but as genuine a moment as you'll find.
As Bohr's wife, Margrethe, Ami Sallee is back on local stages, which should be a headline in its own right. Ms. Sallee had been a local staple years ago, and she's marvelous here, telling so much with just her eyes and putting a unique spin on her lines. This isn't a two person show with a wife thrown onboard for a nice line or quip; Margrethe is an equal entity to Bohr and Heisenberg, and Sallee nails each layer of the role.
Which leaves us with a fresh face to our theatre community, Christopher Marshall as Heisenberg. Marshall is the Upper Division Theatre teacher at Berkeley Prep and has worked at various regional theatres throughout the country as well as Off-Broadway venues. This is the first time we have been able to see him on a Tampa Bay area stage, and what a local debut! He's so likable and natural, and yet we sense that unknowable within him, something hidden in "the darkness of the human soul." There's a mystery there, showcased in each of the different scenarios, and we can't quite figure him out. It's an incredible achievement, and a coup of sorts that Tampa Rep was able to grab him for this role. I pray that this isn't a one-off; I hope that we will be able to watch the talented Mr. Marshall onstage locally for a long time to come.
These three heavy-hitters are onstage the entire show, and it would become quite a struggle to slog through COPENHAGEN if a lesser actor portrayed any one of these parts. Director Emilia Sargent obviously understands actors and brings out the best from her performers. The movement is essential, and the show is deftly staged, the actors moving at just the right time, just the right precision. There's meaning to their movement, including a recreation of the parts of an atom, that makes simple viewing of a not-too-easy work.
Lea Umberger's set is as minimal as it comes, which is not a negative in this instance. This is a show that revolves around three actors moving in different spaces and times; three chairs and atomic-like lines, like a squiggly Spirograph picture, drawn on the floor are all that are needed. So don't come expecting falling chandeliers or giant overhead dragons here. With a show like COPENHAGEN, the power comes in the rich wordage and the stellar performances.
Jo Averill-Snell shows us why she is one of the superlative lighting designers in the area. The lighting changes come naturally, never taking away from the play by being too showy, but rather add to it rather subtly but effectively. Brittany Reuther's costumes suit the 1940's appropriately, and Igor Santos' piano compositions hauntingly add to the show and never detract.
COPENHAGEN stays with you, and you work out and replay its various meanings in your head long after it's over. And you don't need to be a physicist to enjoy it, either. I am probably the furthest person from being a scientist or a mathematician of any sort, but I found the play and its ideas extremely entertaining.
It's early in the year, and there are 51 weeks left to experience incredible local theatre. But Week #1 has already started off with quite a win. If you, like me, are seeking thought-provoking, well-written plays, brought to life by the finest actors in our area and led by an imaginative director, then hurry to COPENHAGEN. It earns my highest recommendation.
COPENHAGEN runs through January 20th at Studio 120 in the Theatre Center (TAR)
at the University of South Florida (3837 USF Holly Drive, Tampa, FL).