It is one of the most compelling plays to hit the stage in years, the winner of the 2000 Tony for Best Play. It is an unlikely stage hit, anchored in the world of the atom, but it is full of conflict, action and the kind of interpersonal drama that is at the heart of the theater.
Copenhagen masterfully lifts the cloak of science to discover the human drama in the fabled 1941 meeting between Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former protg, Werner Heisenberg, who remained in Germany and rose to the pinnacle of atomic research under Hitler. The subject and motives for their meeting were never known. Speculation runs from theories that Heisenberg gave warning to Bohr, who later fled to America, to rumors that he tried to recruit Bohr for the German effort in atomic research. Some believe Heisenberg tried to pump Bohr for information and tutelage, or that he tried to sabotage his own mixed motives around being half-Jewish and working for Hitler.
On stage, the encounter is treated as a faithfully executed experiment, ingeniously incorporating Heisenberg's noted work on the Uncertainty Principle, dealing with the limits of simultaneous measurement of connected variables such as position and momentum, or energy and time. The effect, however, is far from theoretical.
"In some ways, the scientists are like prize fighters," says director Jim Malcolm, retired head of the drama department at Colorado College and the founder of the Alumni Theatre program that is in its 11th summer. "They get into these clashes, and their fighting is highly sophisticated." Malcolm is only the second director to handle the play, following Michael Blakemore's award-winning direction in both London and on Broadway. He was able to secure the coveted, hard-to-come-by permission for a low-key production, thanks to the efforts of London cast member and CC alumnus William Brand ('80).
Brand understudied the original London production and took over the role of Heisenberg for two years. He stresses playwright Michael Frayn's achievement in engaging the average theatergoer with the story's powerful ethical confrontations. "They see it as a human journey," Brand explains of the audiences who flocked to the play in both London and New York. "They see it as a struggle to be understood. They see that it's Heisenberg trying to be forgiven. And they understand it in its human terms."
Part of the humanizing process was to include Bohr's wife, Margrethe, in the re-examination of the meeting. Margrethe worked closely with Bohr, typing drafts of his work and serving as a sounding board to ensure that his concepts could be explained in plain language. Jane Fromme (CC, '84) plays Margrethe, and John Longo -- a professor in the English department from 1983 to 1988 before he left to pursue acting -- takes the role of Bohr.
"The uncertainty in the play is uncertainty about people's motivations," Longo explains, "why they do things, their unconscious motivations as opposed to their rationalizations. It's a very complex and intimate relationship between three people. They're kind of like a family that's gone through this incredible, awful disturbance. They're trying to figure out how to deal with the fallout from that."
"Put it this way," adds Brand, addressing societal questions along with the personal. "Being sentient, being an intellectual being, means having to come to terms with the lack of certainty. The lack of certainty for certain types of people and for certain systems is not a comfortable one, and therefore they seek to replace the uncertainty which is at the heart of life with a spurious certainty. With dogma. This play is certainly about that as well."
As Longo and Brand begin discussing the play's "conflation between ontology and epistemology," Malcolm, obviously enjoying the cast's ability to rise to the play's challenges, comments that "this is not normal actor talk, don't you agree?"
"It is if you've been to CC," Brand counters, hitting on the appeal that draws alumni back to these projects. "Those were my two favorite words when I was at CC. The nature of existence and the nature of meaning."
"Listening to them, you feel like you're in Abbott and Costello," laughs Malcolm as his cast explores the meaning of the text, "like Who's on First, right? It becomes so intricately complicated." It's an apt comparison. Before winning the Tony for Copenhagen, Frayn was best known for writing Noises Off, a madcap comedy of complications, with each comic derailment setting off a chain reaction of new complications. Copenhagen has that same irresistible quality of complexity, an intellectual acrobatic act in keeping with the mind games the scientists use for mental calisthenics, playing poker and chess with imaginary cards and boards. As Longo puts it, "The play sort of self-deconstructs."
The great challenge of the play is to make order in the audience's mind of the chaotically deconstructing exchange of rapid-firing ideas. Frayn employs a paradox of scientific observation -- the observer at the center who sees everything but himself -- leading the three characters to try to understand their own nature by watching how the others in the room react to their presence. The apex of the play comes as the implications of "quantum ethics," where people are measured only by observable characteristics, are brought explosively to light at the same moment that the play's atomic structure falls elegantly into place. The execution of these ideas should be nothing short of astonishing.