Stage West's Copenhagen Makes Physics Into Fizzy Drama; CTD Stages A Sassy Sisters Rosensweig
Theater provides its own version of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. By observing an actor in performance, we, the audience, unwittingly change the behavior of that actor as he or she plays the part.
It's an apt metaphorical fit to the experience of watching Michael Frayn's dazzling, difficult play Copenhagen, currently running at Fort Worth's Stage West. The production, directed by Dana Schultes, is a near-perfect study in the science of using words, sound, gesture and light to tell a story. And it's about as tough a play as there is for an actor, short of Chekhov and Strindberg. Frayn, who gave us the best modern farce about the acting profession with Noises Off, has made a great, dense, almost epic human drama out of two men's obsession with particle physics, quantum mechanics and their role in the possible extinction of humanity itself. It's up to the actors in Copenhagen to make sense of it for the audience. And the quicker we catch on, it seems, the better they do their work.
The two men in the play are a German, Werner Heisenberg (played at Stage West by Chamblee Ferguson), and his older Danish mentor, Niels Bohr (Jerry Russell). In the first half of the 20th century, they were among the first scientists, along with Einstein, to consider the applications of their research into atomic power toward the development of nuclear weapons. The nucleus of Frayn's play is a real-life event, a mysterious, unexpected visit Heisenberg paid to Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941.
By then, Bohr, an assimilated Jew, was under surveillance by Hitler's Gestapo. His research facilities had been shut down, and in the play he suspects that Heisenberg, a loyal German, is dropping in to "borrow" Bohr's cyclotron, an early-stage particle accelerator, to help build an atomic bomb for Hitler. Bohr's wife, Margrethe (Amber Devlin), doesn't even want to let Heisenberg in the door, feeling he's betrayed his "prized student" status by aligning with the Nazis.
We meet all three characters in Copenhagen after their deaths. The entire play is a sort of rewind of that 1941 meeting as interpreted by each character from a clean, sparsely decorated room in the afterlife. "Why did I come to Copenhagen?" Heisenberg asks again and again. The characters in this triangulated story re-enact Heisenberg's visit to Bohr several times, as if repeating an experiment in the lab to get a little closer to the best result.
Three actors, three brushed aluminum chairs and nearly three hours of highbrow palaver about mathematics, physics and moral relativism come together for a remarkably fast-moving, enlightening evening at Stage West. Frayn's torrents of dialogue sometimes bog down in the expository biographical bits and in explanations of just what the hell they're talking about. If you've ever had any uncertainty about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle—in simple terms, that the act of observation changes the thing being observed—you certainly won't after this. But overall, the effect is of a tangle of facts and figures being carefully unknotted until we see what happened (or what Frayn thinks might have happened) set before us in a straight, logical line.
Simple set design by Jim Covault, precise lighting by Michael O'Brien and the barest suggestion of external sounds, designed by director Schultes, give this production real elegance. So do these actors, each putting on the type of confident performance that lets you know they know what they're doing as they navigate the material.
Ferguson is a resident company member at Dallas Theater Center, where he showed off his physical comedy prowess by slipping and sliding over the Wyly Theatre stage as Bottom the Weaver in last fall's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Now he is the picture of physical control and calm at Stage West. His diction has never been so crisp, his vocal and emotional energies never more finely pitched than they are in Copenhagen. Ferguson is always good, but he's mastered a higher level of his craft in his turn as Heisenberg.
With Ferguson tasked with the bulk of the dialogue in the play, Russell and Devlin, whose characters never leave the stage, must listen and react accordingly. They, too, are exemplars of dynamic stillness. And when Bohr and Heisenberg finally cut to the chase—with Bohr angrily accusing his former student of wanting to obliterate mankind in service to evil—their explosive confrontation is all the more riveting for the civilized, conversational tones that precede it.
Throughout, Schultes has her actors move around the nearly empty, starkly lit space like atoms circling toward each other in that cyclotron. Then the three of them end the play lined up front and center, facing the audience for their final words. Now we are the thing observed, changed by the experience.
From a play about smart men to one about smart women. Wendy Wasserstein's 1992 comedy The Sisters Rosensweig is the latest women-on-top offering at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, that friendly showcase for well-worn, middlebrow scripts about middle-aged ladies and their problems. Director Marianne Galloway's production features a sassy cast, but the play's a bit stale and Galloway's allowed some glaring errors in the detail department.
The Rosensweigs, formerly of Brooklyn, are women of the world, reuniting in London for the 54th birthday of eldest sis Sara Goode (Marcia Carroll), a twice-divorced international banking exec. Forty-something middle sister "Dr." Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Shannon J. McGrann, hilariously borrowing the honking voice of Fran Drescher) is a wife, mother and budding radio advice show host taking a group of Hadassah ladies on a tour of Europe. Youngest sibling Pfeni (Elizabeth Van Winkle, working a droopy hairdo) avoids the truth about her bisexual (not so much) boyfriend (John Venable) by trotting off to write about gender studies in Tajikistan.
These gals are well brought up, highly educated and quick with the witticisms (though not a single quotable line comes to mind). That they are irritatingly narcissistic isn't part of Wasserstein's storyline. The much-honored playwright, who died in 2006, loved writing about self-obsessed women, especially Jewish women, going back to her Pulitzer winner, The Heidi Chronicles, and further back to her Yale master's thesis play in the 1970s, Uncommon Women and Others, whose characters could be the collegiate versions of the Rosensweigs. In her oeuvre, women have money, brains and Manolos. It's men they can't seem to hold onto.
More interesting things happen in Chekhov's play about three sisters (referenced throughout the Wasserstein one), but even without much going on to propel their performances, CTD's cast, all too young for their roles, nevertheless hit the punch lines with panache (particularly McGrann) and look smashing in the costumes by Aaron Patrick Turner. But Rodney Dobbs' design for Sara's upscale London townhouse is terribly tacky and looks like the overstuffed set for every other living room comedy at this theater. And yes, it's nitpicky to mention, but British phones do have a distinctive ring (except here), and someone as self-consciously snobby as Sara Goode would know not to put a "grow" in the pronunciation of "Groton."
Uncommon women don't make such common mistakes.
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