Review: ‘Copenhagen’ at Lantern Theater Company

With most of the performances sold out before the show even opened, Lantern Theater Company has already announced a one-week extension of its current production of Copenhagen, and that’s good news for aficionados of serious theater in Philadelphia. Directed by Kittson O’Neill, the revival of its 2003-04 season hit features the return of the Lantern’s original stellar cast reprising Michael Frayn’s dramatic ruminations on the still-unexplained visit of German Physicist Werner Heisenberg to the home of his former friend, colleague, and Danish mentor Niels Bohr in 1941, when  Denmark was under Nazi occupation in the midst of World War II.

Charles McMahon, Sally Mercer, and Paul L. Nolan. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Charles McMahon, Sally Mercer, and Paul L. Nolan. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Frayn’s rich script presents a brilliant discourse, integrating lessons on 20th-century history, quantum physics, and the genesis of the atom bomb with astute observations on human motivations and relationships. Framed in the fictional conceit of the men and Bohr’s wife Margrethe posthumously reliving a sequence of “drafts” of the imagined conversations they might have had at their actual meeting – no one, including Heisenberg here, is sure why he went or what was actually said – the different probabilities provide an ingenious parallel to his seminal “Uncertainty Principle” of 1927. Sagacious well-researched references to the leading physicists of the era, their contributions and theories, include a nod to Albert Einstein’s space-time continuum in the meeting of the now-deceased great minds and their timely discussions about scientific pursuits, momentous ethical dilemmas, the effects of anti-Semitism, and the far-reaching socio-political ramifications of their activities and discoveries.

In consistently masterful performances, Charles McMahon as Heisenberg, Paul L. Nolan as Bohr, and Sally Mercer as Margrethe handle the uber-intellectual material with commitment and fluidity, deliver the characters’ profound passion for science and learning, and capture their feelings of awkwardness, anger, and bygone friendship, irreparably damaged by the state of the world and the ‘advancement’ of their field and their careers. O’Neill moves the actors around the stage, as they debate, discuss, and reminisce with each other, directly address the audience, remind one another to use “plain language” so that they can be better understood, gesture emphatically to accentuate their points, and recreate the momentum of subatomic particles with their bodies (only the recurrent movement-based slow-motion sequences of the physicists taking a walk together tend to distract from Frayn’s erudite language). Their characterizations are consummately human, filled with mutual respect and professional competitiveness, laughter and loss, while pondering the presence of conscience and responsibility, reproach and accountability, and recognizing the sobering idea that, although they made it out of the war alive, their work on nuclear fission “may yet kill everyone.” It’s every bit as horrific a thought now, in our current climate, as it was then.

Paul L. Nolan, Sally Mercer, and Charles McMahon. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Paul L. Nolan, Sally Mercer, and Charles McMahon. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Nick Embree’s set cleverly evokes the particles and formulae of the central atomic theme, and Natalia de la Torre’s costumes suit the style of the period and characters. Robin Stamey’s lighting gives focus to the figures and distinguishes between their segments of interaction, self-reflection, and uncertain memories, and Daniel Perelstein’s sound design provides an underscore of classical music that subtly enhances the tone of the scenes and the mood of the times.

There’s no uncertainty about it. The Lantern’s remount of Copenhagen is intelligent, thought-provoking, and relevant, holding enduring insight and appeal for a sophisticated audience. We’ve come to expect nothing less from this smart and substantive company, and we got it.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission.

Copenhagen plays through Sunday, February 18, 2018, at Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.


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