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A CurtainUp Feature
The Science Community Embraces Copenhagen

By Elyse Sommer

Heisenberg & Bohr
(Photo: AIP Niels Bohr Library )
As James Walters' so aptly put it in his CurtainUp review of Copenhagen (linked below) "At first glance it is fair to say that Nuclear Physics might not be the most accessible topic for the theatre going public. However, it is at this point that Michael Frayn's frank and often witty dialogue triumphs. Indeed, he draws the audience into the subject of the piece with such theatrical ease that talk of sub-atomic particles and nuclear fission are wholly acceptable and, more importantly, recognizable aspects of a compelling story."

Michael Frayn
(Photo: AIP Niels Bohr Library )
The circumstances surrounding the scientific, historical and theatrical perspectives of the play also made for a fascinating well attended all-day "Creating Copenhagen" symposium (March 27, 2000) co-sponsored by The Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project and the Graduate Center of City University of New York.

At the final evening segment that I attended Mr. Frayn told the audience that packed the handsome 400-seat Proshansky Auditorium that his extensive research into his subject was done without any expectation that it would become a commercially viable endeavor. The author, who could easily pass as a scientist or physics professor, explained that as he struggled with the mass of material he thought it unlikely that he would be able to get such an abstract piece produced "or that anyone would come." With a happy grin he added "I never expected to face an audience who understood science as I did not."

Director, Michael Blakemore, who was the second featured speaker, also did not foresee the broad audience response that made it a surprise hit in London. He and Frayn have been frequent collaborators and he admires his writing sufficietly to want to work on any Frayn play. However, while he was smitten with the script for Copenhagen, he expected little beyond a brief run at one of the National Theatre's smaller venues, the Cottesloe. It did in fact transfer to the Duchess Theatre in the West End -- a genuine hit.

As Copenhagen attracted large audiences by making abstract scientific and philosophical ideas entertaining as well as stimulating, so this symposium was attended by people from all walks of life. The scientific community was well represented, especially at the "Scientific Perspectives" and "Historical Perspectives" afternoon sessions. However, I bumped into a number of non-scientific friends and acquaintances who were delighted that they made time for all three sessions.

Philip Bosco

Blair Brown

Michael Cumpsty

Will the American production be different from the one in London? Yes, inasmuch that Mr. Blakemore felt it needed an American cast. No, in that the director sought out actors who were interested in what the play had to say and who were not afraid to tackle its scientific language. Being familiar with the work of the three actors he chose -- Philip Bosco as the half-Jewish Danish physicist Niels Bohr, Blair Brown as his wife Margrethe and Michael Cumpsty as the German counterpart, Werner Heisenberg -- the American production looks to be in good hands. The single text change was to clarify a reference to September 1939 which more immediately evokes the start of World War II in England than in the United States.

Since Copenhagen is still in previews as I write this, the final word isn't in as to New York audience and critical response. What's clear, judging from the questions and comments at the end of the Frayn-Blakemore session, no one who sees it is likely to leave the theater without thinking and talking about it long after the lights dim.

Given the high attendance at this symposium -- a sellout, if you can apply that label to a free event, Ensemble Studio Theatre and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation are onto a good idea with their First Light Festival of new dramatic works exploring the worlds of science and technology. The main feature of this event, a world premiere of Arthur Giron's Moving Bodies, starts previews at the Ensemble Studio's theatre at 549 W. 52nd St. on Wednesday April 5th. It's the story of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman as he explores nature, science, sex, anti-semitism and the world around him and the world within. CurtainUp readers are familiar with this organization's many previous theatrical treats and it's affordable $15 tickets. For details about the Giron play and other First Light Festival events, call 956-2296.

CurtainUp's London review of Copenhagen
For details about t the playwright's latest novel, Headlong go here- CurtainUp's Review of the NY production

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