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February 17, 2004

Despite casting pitfalls, UT Copenhagen puts best foot forward

First, let's level: Copenhagen is a very good play. Or, at the very least, I happen to think it's quite a good play, and I'm the one writing this review. But the question informing this space is whether University Theater turned in a good performance of that play on Friday night.

By way of brief overview, the plot is straightforward: the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Danish and German respectively, met in late 1943 in Copenhagen. Heisenberg's country was occupying Bohr's. The two had not spoken in years, and their friendship and professional relationship had always been both intimate and turbulent.

The single question the play tries to answer is: what did they talk about? Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in the middle of a war? The idea sounds simple, yes, but can detonate into a myriad of possibilities, reflecting on the men as physicists, as citizens of warring nations, and as cognizant players in the race for the atom bomb. The two men, with the assistance of Bohr's wife Margrethe, try to walk back through these questions.

In one sense, there's not a whole lot of room for error within the drama, owing to this very simplicity. The script calls for three characters and absolutely nothing else; no elaborate sound effects, no clever lighting or intricate sets are necessary. And the backdrop tends to be the same no matter where you see it: a circular stage, perhaps a pattern on the ground, one or two or three chairs. In essence, if the actors memorize and deliver their lines in a timely fashion, the play tends to work on its own merits. This is because the humor and the insight are written into the script.

But, as I say, this isn't a book review. So let's start with the highpoint of this production: the great performance turned in by Doug Kerr as Danish physicist Niels Bohr. The aged genius is by no means an easy part, but Kerr infused it with just the lips-kiss-fingertips-perfect level of aloof benevolence, of being not entirely there at times, and frightfully incisive at others. If at times Kerr was a bit restrained and could have hammed it up some more (remember, the audience's interest in the characters can only be commensurate with the performances in this set-up), he nevertheless was quite admirable in trying to wrestle with the character of an elderly, world-weary man.

Which prompts an aside: one of the more difficult things to get used to in this performance was the age of the actors. All three are presumably in their twenties or younger, all three attempted to play characters more than twice their age. And while this was an obstacle the production couldn't have avoided, it is indeed peculiar when the grandmother figure looks younger than you, and you still beam when you get served a beer somewhere.

That said, the other two performances left a bit more to be desired. My problem with Ayse Kocakülâh as Bohr's wife Margrethe was a general one—she just didn't seem to fit the part. Her mannerisms and stage presence were more befitting a secretary or assistant of some sort than a mother who had reared and buried children—the rock of a wife to a difficult, difficult man. It was nobody's fault, really; it just didn't click.

The role reflected this deficiency as well. "It's so easy to laugh; it's so easy to hate," Morrissey reminded me on the way home. "It takes strength to be gentle and kind." Now, I genuinely can't remember if this is a problem with the play itself, or if this argument is more pointed, but every line from Margrethe seemed either full of hatred aimed at Heisenberg (the German visiting her occupied Denmark) or a witty aside. But in a play so dependent on compassionate interpretations of events long past (if not long dead), there appeared in Margrethe no tenderness. She seemed to embody bitterness out of place in such a woman.

This last performance, and perhaps the hardest, was Bradley Pennington as Heisenberg. He seemed the least confident on stage of the three, oscillating between a fairly passionate portrayal of a complicated man and a blank slate. There were times when Pennington seemed a little bit lost in all the dialogue. But he was convincing in places, especially in the remembrances of his wife and his homeland.

The former, Heisenberg's wife, leads me elsewhere. In a move I had not seen attempted with this play, there were in fact more than just the three people on the stage. Three extras were also used in flashback sequences (though none had a single line): Heisenberg's wife and two of Bohr's children. At first, I found no real problem with this, but after talking with people who had never seen the play, I realized that it was a terrible move. The play, remember, is entirely a flashback: the opening words make it clear that all three characters are dead; they are ghosts trying to answer questions left unresolved during their lives.

This is why they are able to stop time, to replay the same scene over and over again from different angles. To add three "other" ghosts who do not talk—who are mere specters—jeopardizes the fact that the central characters are ghosts as well. Instead of adding anything to the play, the additions were terribly confusing. And not in a trivial way: in a play with little setting and context, the fact that we have one foot in time, one foot out of time is crucial to keeping pace with things.

Other emendations went much better. The addition of music was, in my mind, a roaring success. It really helped in filling out the play. When I saw the small ensemble of musicians at the beginning I was afraid of the possibilities, but I was quickly and thoroughly assuaged by the discretion used in choosing when and what to play. And even the physics formulas sprawled in white on the black walls weren't so bad.

But in the end I had two main thoughts: one, that this presentation of the play was acceptable, even if it wasn't great—for in the end it did a good enough job of getting across the themes and currents and confusions of the play; and two, I still happen to think this is a damn good play. It's a hard play, and I'm delighted that UT decided to put it on.