Thursday, October 15, 2015
"Copenhagen" and "Einstein's Dreams" Running In Repertory - Presented by Catalyst Collaborative@MIT at Central Square Theater Through November 15
I saw an extraordinary play last evening at Central Square Theater. "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn is a brilliantly conceived and written play about the historic meeting in 1941 between two of the world's leading theoretical physicists: Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Under the precise and enlightened direction of Eric Tucker, the three actors are superb in portraying the two physicists and Bohr's wife, Margrethe.
This play is running in repertory with "Einstein's Dreams" by Wesley Savick, adapted from the book by Alan Lightman. Both plays employ the same three cast members, supplemented by Roberto Cassan on the accordion in "Einstein's Dreams" and by Han Nah Son on the piano in "Copenhagen." These plays are part of an ongoing partnership,: the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, an idea that was inaugurated in 2007. MIT and Underground Railway Theater have combined their resources to dramatize issues of science and to help to incorporate the the humanities more fully into the MIT community experience.
One of the reasons that I found this play to be so satisfying is the complexity and cleverness of the writing by Mr. Frayn. He uses the world and language of physics as metaphors to describe in words and in action the dynamic relationships among the three characters, who are speaking to us posthumously from beyond the grave, still wrestling with trying to understand exactly what happened during the watershed meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. There is much high level discussion of the intricacies of theoretical physics and nuclear fission - specifically the splitting of the Uranium atom. Very profoundly, the playwright and director have timed dialogue so that characters are frequently interrupting one another - their individual words launched to split the atom of the other's communication. It is verbal fission.
As the action of the play develops, moving back and forth in time (demonstrating some of Einstein's theories of time and space), it becomes clear that there occurred a rupture in the relationship between Bohr and his former protege Heisenberg. The nucleus of the issue was the fact that Heisenberg was now collaborating with the Nazis in trying to perfect fission with a view towards harnessing the atomic energy as a weapon of mass destruction. Bohr, living in occupied Denmark, was deeply resentful of the Nazis and distrustful of Hiesenberg's motives in visiting the Bohrs and pumping the professor for information.
In the course of following the complicated and convoluted conversations among Bohr, Heisenberg and Margrethe, the audience learns a great deal about physics and about the chemistry that exists in the relationships among the top physicists in the world. That there are intellectual and personal rivalries to be measured and accounted for is clear. A complicating factor in the relationships among these three characters is the fact of the drowning of the Bohr's son during a fishing trip that included Bohr and Heisenberg. The uncertainty of whether either of these men did everything in their power to try to save the young man orbits around the three-fold relationship shared among these three individuals, and hangs as a pall over their subsequent interactions over the years.
At the heart of the play and of the Bohr-Heisenberg isotope of decaying friendship is the question: "What moral responsibility does a scientist have to deploy or to withhold the application of his knowledge in time of war if the application of that knowledge could lead to the development of a weapon and huge loss of life?" The same question with some of the same characters is treated in a powerful play that was produced by the Catalyst Collaborative@MIT in 2013: the brilliant "Operation Epsilon."
The playwright's words spring into vibrant action and life in the hands of the three gifted actors. Steven Barkimer is the passionate, gruff and brilliant Nobel laureate Bohr. His verbal sparring with Heisenberg and his more gentle repartee with Margrethe reveal a complex man who has come to discover the arcane workings of subatomic particles. Yet he realizes that it would be a quantum leap for him to be able to fully plumb the depths of the mind and heart of his wife. As Margrethe, Debra Wise masters a whole catalogue full of facial expressions, pretending to be gracious to the visiting Heisenberg, knowing that she never liked or fully trusted him when he was a daily presence in their home early in his career. Having typed many drafts of Bohr's papers and of the iconic Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, she understands the science almost as well as the brilliant men in her house. And she certainly understands them as human beings far better that they understand themselves. In keeping with Heisenberg's landmark Uncertainty Principal, the objects of her observation do not remain unchanged in response to the photons of her piercing gaze and moral judgment. Robert Najarian is a bundle of frenetic energy as Heisenberg, uncertain even of his own true motives for visiting Bohr in the midst of the war, and again after Germany had been defeated. He spins in opposite directions - sometimes wanting the approval and acceptance of his mentor, and at other time wanting to leave the gravitational field of Bohr's mind to contemplate on his own new theories and calculations.
These same three actors also populate "Einstein's Dreams," a shorter and much less substantial piece that treats young Einstein's struggles to understand and to articulate a whole new conception of the nature of time and space. In this shorter work, given the more prosaic text from which to draw their characters, they play a very fine game of three-handed checkers. In "Copenhagen," Mr. Frayn has constructed for them a three-dimensional chess board, and they play the game as Grand Masters. The amount of fissionable material in the script has reached critical mass, and it allows this elemental trio to sustain a chain reaction of conflict, conceptualization and catharsis that kept me spellbound.
Do not miss this play, which will run through November 15th. I have absolutely no uncertainty that you will find this to be a worthwhile investment of your time and of your entertainment budget. Put yourself in the orbit around Central Square and enjoy a remarkable evening of theater.
Central Square Theater Website