Theater review: ‘Copenhagen’ is an intellectual theater experience

Jim Cavener
Asheville Citizen-Times
September 28, 2007

ASHEVILLE — Theater lovers who want their diversions served as fluff and trivia have loved playwright Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.” But those who like their theater in the form of intellectual stimulation, significant subject matter and superbly nuanced acting will prefer the same writer’s “Copenhagen,” performed by the immediate theatre project, at the BeBe Theatre in Asheville. These are two quite different approaches to theater, indeed.

It’s an imagined and articulate inquiry into the creation of the global nuclear horror some 60-plus years ago.

It helps to know a bit about quantum mechanics, nuclear fission and theoretical physics fully to grasp all implications of this mathematically elegant script. Yet the rest of us still can appreciate the human complexities in the relationships between three fascinating mid-20th-century figures integral to the development of the atomic bomb, before and during World War II.

“Copenhagen” has a stark and somber setting in the barren, black box of the BeBe theater, with only the black walls, three maple stools, 40 white lights and three black-clad actors in the performing area. The male actors’ dark suits are set off by white shirts. The single woman on stage has a string of huge white pearls above her dark dress, and there is a white panel at the back of the stage that is pivotal to a startling scene well into the second act of the show.

Two of Western North Carolina’s most respected actors play Niels and Margrethe Bohr, a Danish physicist and his wife. Kay Galvin gives as good a performance as we have seen from her in the decade when she has brilliantly captured such as Eleanor of Aquaitaine, Lady Macbeth and Vivian in “Wit.”

The venerable Earl Leininger, veteran of more than 30 years on local stages, mostly at Souther Appalachian Repertory Theater, is still in his prime as Niels Bohr. The German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, is played by newcomer to Asheville, Lance Ball, who has trod the boards in New York and New England, and it shows. Ball holds his own among these two local legends.

The company’s artistic director, Hans Meyer, has drawn these three into a quite tight ensemble to present Frayn’s wordy and demanding script with total brilliance. The material is deep and deserving. It presents thwarted, but noble human aspirations, assuming that there was within the scientific community during World War II an awareness of the potential global horror of atomic armaments. The development of that century’s greatest threat to human survival makes for powerful stage work, for sure.