Encores & Curtain Calls: The Little Theater that Could
“The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”
— Niels Bohr
The Actors Theatre Playhouse is fast becoming “The Little Theater That Could.” Housed in a relatively minuscule space in West Chesterfield, N.H., a few miles across the river from Brattleboro, Vt., it has recently mustered the gumption to morph itself into both cabaret and musical theater and its new offering, “Copenhagen,” is nothing less than a drama that explores the contemporary cutting-edges of life and death: the genesis of the nuclear era through the life of physicist Niels Bohr.
Authored by Michael Frayn, the play was accorded the 1998 Evening Standard of London Award for Best Play of the Year and the 2000 Tony, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics Circle awards. Of it, the Guardian has this to say: “The most invigorating and ingenious play of ideas in many a year and a work of art that humanizes physics in a way no other has done.” The New York Times said: “The play’s balance of emotion and ideas is beautifully captured ... Frayn builds a brilliant play.”
Michael Fox Kennedy enacts Neils Bohr, endeavoring to justify his position to a resistant Werner Heisenberg, played by Gregory Leach. The show also features Christopher Emily Coutant as Bohr’s wife, Margrethe; it is directed by Burt Tepfer. The four-week run opens on Aug. 28 and runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 20, with all performances beginning at 7:30 p.m.
ATP’s background notes set the scene well: “It is 1941 in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, both Nobel Laureate nuclear physicists, are meeting secretly. Heisenberg is in charge of atomic research in Nazi Germany. Bohr would later work on the American nuclear program at Los Alamos. Will what they discuss change the world forever? Could the atomic bomb have been avoided?”
An interview with ATP director Burt Tepfer follows:
JM: What about “Copenhagen” seized you so to want to direct it yourself?
BT: Well, I first saw it on Broadway and then saw a production of it at the Weston Playhouse here in Vermont ...
JM: The Weston Playhouse is a great company.
BT: Yes, they do a great job of everything in general and I was captivated by it. It was extremely moving and stimulating, it had so many levels that just captivated me — the historical mystery, the details about the atomic bomb and how it’s developed and the levels of motivation on the parts of the protagonists, and I’ve just always wanted to do it.
JM: It’s a three-player drama from start to finish?
BT: Yes: Bohr, his wife, Margrethe, and Heisenberg. Talk about motivation, the central question which everything hinges on is, “Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?”... You know, this is a real historical mystery. This is a true story, basically, about Heisenberg visiting Bohr in secret during World War II and the subject of their conversation is still a mystery to historians. There are various versions of what actually was said and what their true intentions were. And nobody, really, has ever solved that mystery.
JM: And from that point, is it completely the playwright’s prerogative, with no one in a position to contest his imagination?
BT: Well, I have an allergy to historical fiction where authors and playwrights just decide they’re going to put words in historical people’s mouths; I don’t think that is fair ... I don’t like that. But Frayn has researched this extraordinarily well, he has read all the history and text of what Heisenberg said about it, what the circumstances were, he knows his history, he knows his politics of the time, he knows the anger the Danes had at being occupied by Germany — he knows all these things. And he explores the subject delicately and with care.
JM: With the three players constantly on stage, the implication is that Margrethe Bohr was intimate with the purpose and content of their meeting?
BT: Yes. Heisenberg came to their house for dinner, secretly. So they had dinner, they had a chat .... (Heisenberg and Bohr) had worked together for three years, so they knew each other quite well. She wasn’t there on the walk that they took where he posed delicate questions, and so wasn’t party to Heisenberg’s questions, but she certainly was very close to the experience for sure. She and Niels Bohr confided in each other quite often. She served a purpose in the play that might have been different than the purpose she played in real life: she’s the interpreter who has to have things explained to her so that we in the audience know what they’re talking about. She is trying to be the Greek Chorus, in a way.
JM: Do we know that Heisenberg was seminal in the creation of Nazi weaponry, or only that he was involved in the cause?
BT: Well, we know that his position was head of the Atomic Bomb Project for Germany but, as you know, it never came to fruition. The question then is why not? Was it because he was not capable, in terms of the physics? Was it because he didn’t want to, consciously or unconsciously? He was not a Nazi, you know. He was a loyal, patriotic German.
JM: In the hypothetical realm, he could have been coming to ask Bohr how to subvert the whole process?
BT: Exactly what he wanted from Bohr is the whole substance of the play and I don’t think the play really answers it. The audience is left with many plausible options as to why he came and one of the take-home aspects of it is, “Well, maybe he wasn’t quite sure why he came himself. He may have thought his old mentor and father figure might help him with that.” But that’s what the audience is going to be intrigued by, I hope.
JM: Does Frayn ever explore the double-edged irony that, although Germany was prevented — or aborted — from developing nuclear weaponry, the Good Guys of the Allied Forces did let that very selfsame cat out of the bag?
BT: Absolutely. I mean, Heisenberg turns it onto Bohr and says, “Well, at least I didn’t do it, you guys did it,’ and Bohr had to admit that the genie was out of the bottle then.
Tickets are $12 on Thursdays and $15 on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are highly recommended. The Playhouse Toll-Free Box Office can be reached at 877-666-1855. ATPlayhouse.org.
Season finale in Old Deerfield
This is it, your final chance to take in the Old Deerfield Sunday Afternoon Concert Series at the close of its 65th season on Sunday, Aug. 31, with a return engagement by the class chamber act, The Valtchev-Tchekoratova Violin and Piano Duo at 3 p.m., in the music room of Memorial Hall Museum, 8 Memorial St., Old Deerfield. Featured performers will be Georgy Valtchev, violin, and Lora Tchekoratova, piano, playing Enesco’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 3 in a minor, Op. 25 and Schumann’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 Op. 121.
If I could essay a guess, familiar as I am with the musical integrity and power these two performers have consistently delivered in past years during their Old Deerfield Sunday Afternoon concerts, I would imagine that both Schumann and Enesco might well have been consoled to know their music was in the hands of such a dedicated and deeply committed couple. I certainly would!
It’s now or never. The concert is just down the road in the room where “Time Stands Still” and the ticket price still lives in 1950.
Admission is $10; $5 for students and seniors. For further information, call Memorial Hall Museum at 413-774-3768, ext. 80.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.