“Why did I come to Copenhagen?” one of the characters asks, late into the second act of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen. I asked myself the same question after seeing Flat Earth Theatre’s production last weekend. I am a huge Noises Off fan, another play by Michael Frayn, but his two scripts are nothing alike. Copenhagen tells the story of Neils Bohr (played with pompous egotism by Matthew Zahnzinger) and Werner Heisenberg (played by Kevin Kordis) and their meeting in occupied Copenhagen in September 1941. The talk of nuclear fission may have gone over my head but I generally thought the production got lost in the science. There was not enough Science of Life.
Early in the play, Heisenberg and Bohr discuss that it is faster to react than to act. I wish the actors had taken these words to heart. There was a sincere lack of reaction among the three actors, particularly the typically silent wife, Margrethe Bohr (played by Emily Hecht). So commendable in Flat Earth’s Bug last year, Hecht fell flat in this role. Perhaps she was tasked with too much “downtime” where the script left it unclear what Margrethe was feeling and thinking during the encounters between Heisenberg and Neils Bohr. Her best moment was her revelation about her husband and Heisenberg’s relationship. When Hecht spoke, she was vibrant and purposeful; her command of the lengthy monologues was superb. But unfortunately, she floundered with silence and the script doesn’t give Margrethe the necessary speeches to establish a fleshed-out character.
Despite her flaws, Hecht’s was the only character to truly make the play “personal,” a comment she makes in the play’s dialogue. “[The relationship between Heisenberg and Bohr] is personal.” Unfortunately, strong acting performances from Zahnzinger and Kordis, especially their sustained accents, couldn’t make up for the fact that I never understood the relationship between the men. They falter under the exposition and science-related dialogue. I can’t tell if the playwright or the actors were to blame, therefore, I will blame the director. Jake Scaltreto created beautiful and interesting stage pictures, but the words and story were lost. The momentum of the play was commendable, however. Scaltreto kept the two-and-a-half hour marathon of a play moving at a whirlwind speed. Though some audience members might request a pause or two, I was thankful for the actors’ steady pacing. Scaltreto’s creative blocking, the actors moving through the “in-the-round” space like swirling electrons, helped keep the actors focused and energized throughout the show. I appreciated the visual momentum of the pacing and diverging actors around the small stage, especially during moments of climax, like their discussion regarding the problems with Heisenberg’s paper.
I wish, however, that the director had incorporated more chemistry into the story. I’m not sure if the director and actors made a conscious choice to create stuffy, impersonal and abstract characters, but it worked. Unfortunately, I felt alienated. The dialogue truly felt like an Oxford lecture at times because there was a sincere lack of relationship and reaction from the listening characters. Truly, “when you walk, you talk,” as one of the characters states. Thankfully, there were key moments in the script where the actors could appreciate Frayn’s writing, especially Heisenberg’s monologues. I felt uncomfortable and, frankly, bored during the performance, but I admired the actors’ Herculean efforts to make the play interesting. Their monologues border on pedantic and theoretical, but all three actors tried their hardest to perform their lines with earnest.
One of my favorite parts was the lighting design in the production. With a unit set featuring a raised platform and a circling of chairs for audience members, the stage was especially sparse. Matt Breton, the lighting designer, adapted the lighting perfectly to suit the mood and changes in scenes for the production. The lighting was subtle and beautiful in its complexity. The shifting of time and place happened seamlessly, and this movement was truly the most compelling.
While I can’t say I enjoyed my evening at Copenhagen, I respected the efforts of this company once again. I think they have produced better shows, but I can’t fault them for tackling a difficult script with gusto. The length and depth of the show is daunting, but if you can overlook any lack of chemistry among the characters, you can have a great night of theatre by appreciating the strong themes and ideas presented, and the amazing skill of an accomplished lighting designer.