Thursday, March 20, 2003

Heavy, dense, slow to move: Copenhagen like natural uranium

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Uranium in its natural form includes two subtypes: U-238, a heavy metal that absorbs energy without flinching, and U-235, the fuel for nuclear reactors and the first nuclear bombs. Volatile U-235 must be extracted from the surrounding material and gathered together in a tiny space to form a crucible of powerful material that explodes in a fury of energy and light.

So it is with a play. Dense words, dark on the page, must have their meaning and potential extracted and then presented on the crucible of a stage to enlighten and excite the audience. Copenhagen is a hard play to do this with, and resisted being distilled by Portland Stage Company.

Playwright Michael Frayn delved deep into theoretical physics to understand a historical event: German physicist Werner Heisenberg traveled to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941, where he spoke with his former teacher, Niels Bohr, the discoverer of atomic structure and grandfather of nuclear science. The subject of their conversation remains unknown. What Frayn surfaced with is a play that demonstrates in art two important concepts in physics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s idea of complementarity (or duality).

Both are attempts to infer reality from what can be observed about the way particles move in the world, much as Frayn has tried to figure out what happened that night in Copenhagen by learning what Bohr and Heisenberg said and wrote about their meeting.

Frayn’s play is an example of the challenge of the uncertainty principle: It looks closely at one event, the meeting in Copenhagen, and tries not to lose focus of the rest of the context, including the Nazi occupation of much of Europe and the nascent arms race pitting the US and the UK, which had offered asylum to German Jewish physicists, against Germany itself. Further, it has a powerful physical duality: both a historical lecture and a play in one.

The historical value of it is a bit dubious, at least according to Heisenberg’s son Jochen, now a theoretical physicist at UNH, who told the PSC audience after a recent show that he thinks much of it is accurate, but his father was more rational and less emotional than Frayn allowed him to be. For that, we should thank Frayn: If any of these characters were less emotional, they would be dead, as indeed they all are today.

Combining science and art is a commendable undertaking, and one which this newspaper rewarded by sponsoring the play at PSC. However, the brutally spartan set and lighting force unwavering attention on complex speeches delivered by two of history’s most towering scientists. They discuss the moral role of a scientist who is pushing the limits of human capability, and whether people who know how to create terrible weapons should do so, or should delay politicians eager for new power.

Director Rafkin has chosen a play with strong contemporary tie-ins, weapons of mass destruction, scientific ethics, and the role of science in war. But he has not distilled the volatile, powerful emotion from the dense and deadening dialogue. The actors are perhaps put through their physical paces on a three-dimensional set unlike any other, but their passions are fettered and hidden. Brief bursts of energy are not reflected or amplified by the others, but are instead absorbed, stopping the chain reaction before it even starts.

Written by Michael Frayn. Directed by Michael Rafkin. With Alison Edwards, Lee Godart, and Glen Pannell. At Portland Stage Company through March 23. Call (207) 774-0465.


Copenhagen is PSC technical director Ted Gallant’s 100th show. Since he started in 1987, he has climbed the exterior of a forklift to load a set into the building (Triple Espresso), designed two beds that fly for A Christmas Carol, built the lobster boat at the Children’s Museum of Maine, and ripped out a third of the stage to make room for a three-foot-deep swimming pool for Church of the Sole Survivor.

He called the set work for Copenhagen easy, saying the set for True West was much more challenging. It had to be constructed both in intricate detail and in super-sturdy form. Not every telephone gets ripped out of the wall daily, nor kitchen drawers thrown on the floor every evening. He has to work with actors, directors, and lighting crews to get things that look good and work properly but also fit in the space allotted and suit the rest of the performance.

" I never thought I was going to do a 100th show, " Gallant said, and laughed at the idea of 100 or 50 more, saying he would see what happens. Don’t be too surprised, though. After 15 years, " it has become what I do. "

• With no warning or explanation, Cauldron and Labrys’ run of Carolyn Gage’s Thanatron has ended prematurely at the Portland Performing Arts Center studio theater.

• For an evening of free theater, check out Eggs over Eric, written and directed by Tim Rubel, in a workshop production at PPAC’s 25A Forest Avenue studio theater at 8 p.m. March 27, 28, and 29.

• PSC’s 14th Little Festival of the Unexpected is coming April 23 through 26, showcasing new women’s voices in theater and preparing Women and the Sea for its debut at PSC next season.

• Registrations have closed for the Maine Association of Community Theaters’ one-act festival. Keep your eyes open for many of Maine’s local stars at Great Falls Performing Arts Center in Auburn, May 2 and 3.