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Wednesday, May 9,2012

Explosive drama

Riverwalk's 'Copenhagen' presents a compelling meeting of the minds

by Tom Helma

In the spare spaces of the Riverwalk Theatre black box theater, Richard Frayn’s “Copenhagen” takes us back in time to the beginning of the nuclear age, to the scientists whose abstract theoretical formulations constituted the beginnings of quantum physics. The play focuses on the challenging and conflicted relationship between two of the most brilliant of physicists who first postulated the notion of splitting the atom. 

Director Mary Job’s rendition is black-box-friendly. A spiral galaxy of multi-colored, paint-spot   stars that glow in the dark splatter the stage floor, while stage action circles endlessly. Time plays tricks. We shuttle back and forth in time, listening as all three characters take turns explaining a convoluted academic history that wanders between a pre-World War II innocence and a war-focused polarity that transforms former friends and colleagues into mortal enemies. .

In Nazi-occupied Denmark, Danish elder theoretician, Nels Bohr (Rick Dethlefsen) encounters Dr. Werner Heisenberg (Jeff Magnuson), once Bohr’s intern and now maintaining neutrality while simultaneously heading up a group of Nazi-sympathizer physicists trying to apply the concepts of nuclear fission to create an atomic bomb. 

In the midst of the dazzlingly articulate, intellectually brilliant musings and observations of these geniuses is the equally sharp-witted referee, Margrethe Bohr (Leann Dethlefsen).

Action and words are crisp and quick in this production, which requires rapt audience attention as the complexities of quantum physics roll effortlessly off the tongues of actors (all of whom deliver the terms without a single stumble). 

Is it merely ironic that the Jews escaping Nazi Germany and exiled to the United States ended up creating the bomb that annihilated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  What if Heisenberg, in Germany, had figured out how to make fission work before Bohr, who, ending up in Los Alamos, N.M., developed the trigger of the atomic bomb? 

None of the three actors in this play flinch from the challenge of representing bright-star academic minds struggling with the consequences of their insights. Magnuson portrays a manic mysticism. His character is clearly in love with himself, and flies across the stage like a bird of paradise, captured in the thrall of his flight of mathematical ideas.

The Dethelfsens, husband and wife in real life, while both more restrained in their characterizations, are no less passionate, no less vehement in the presentation of their intelligent ideas. 

Timing in this production is akin to punch and counter-punch, with no mercy given and none invited. Leann Dethlefsen, in particular, gives no quarter whatsoever to the more agitated Magnuson, while Rick Dethlefsen remains solidly grounded in his sober-minded character throughout the play. 

In this post-nuclear world, where the horrors of widespread atomic devastation are mere history, it could be easy to ignore or to not even consider the significance of how these once-abstract ideas gave birth to the possibility of world annihilation. “Copenhagen” brings it all back.

‘Copenhagen’

May 4-13

Riverwalk Theatre

228 Museum Drive, Lansing

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays

$12; $10 for seniors, students or military

(517) 482-5700

www.riverwalktheatre.com

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