Monday, March 27, 2023

Peeling the Onion of Human Motivation


With intentional flicks of his paring knife, Michael Frayn gets to the imagined root of a famously unexplained meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in his play “Copenhagen.” This speculative history leads to conclusions that only could be made through bracing, dramatic dialog. 

Heisenberg instigates the 1941 meeting on his visit to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen where Bohr (whose mother was Jewish) and his wife Margrethe reside. This is not merely a meeting of the minds, although the discussions of their sometimes disagreeing theories are stimulating and authoritative. As the two men dissect their shared memories and separate actions, they are anchored by Margrethe’s exhortations to speak plainly and by her loving concern for Bohr.

Actors Studio 66 presents an ambitious performance of the play at Black Cat Theatre Space (formerly Aux Dog Theatre) and it is a thorough success. Matthew Zimmerer is exceptional as Bohr, the “pope” of physics and Heisenberg’s one-time mentor. He fluidly expresses feelings towards Heisenberg - peevishness, anger, shock, outright love - who is his intellectual son. Jay Hobson takes on the role of Heisenberg as a youngish man, a former acolyte who is in need of Bohr’s wisdom now. Hobson portrays Heisenberg as hyperaware of the thorns and roses of their friendship yet unafraid to trample both in his search for the truth of his own actions.  

The play’s beating heart is Zoë Yeoman as Margrethe. The actor is unafraid to insert Margrethe’s own intellect between the warring, world-famous scientists and relentlessly drives the men toward an honest evaluation of their roles during World War II and ever after.

Bohr worked with the U.S. on nuclear fission, thereby contributing to the atomic bomb. Heisenberg worked with Germany, but failed to produce a bomb for the Nazis. Those facts are the crux of Frayn’s imaginative examination of that 1941 meeting and of what Benedict Nightingale of the New York Times called the “weird symbiosis of Bohr and Heisenberg.”

Director Matt Heath moves each character forward as he or she asserts their opinion and their view of the facts, a classic director's gambit that he deploys with style. On an effective set provocatively lighted and designed by Pete Parkin, a row of mirrors fractures many sides of the characters as they move and speak, a hint to the stunning conclusion of this play, a complete peeling of the onion. Actors Studio 66 has a tagline - Socially Relevant Theatre - and they've hit on that ideal with "Copenhagen."

"Copenhagen" runs through Feb. 12; Thu.-Sat. 7:30pm; Sun. 2pm, Black Cat Cultural Center, 3011-13 Monte Vista Blvd NE. Tix:


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