Indiana Repertory Theatre

November 2002

James Edmondson

“Intelligence detonates Indiana Repertory Theatre’s production of Michael Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen.’  And like the text, the smart, passionate cast and creative team explode with the force of a nuclear bomb.

“This 2000 Tony Award-winner speculates on the visit German physicist Werner Heisenberg paid to his former mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, in occupied Copenhagen in 1941.  No one knows what they talked about, but the Nobel Prize laureates wound up on opposite sides of the race to develop plutonium.  Frayn turns the mystery into an inquiry about accountability, reality, and friendship.

“As far back as his 1982 farce ‘Noises Off,’ Frayn has been interested in chaos.  In ‘Copenhagen,’ he raises the stakes to the endgame; destruction of life—and truth.  Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife, typist and sounding board Margrethe, return from the grave to relate that fateful encounter to each other and the audience.  Each remembers it differently.

“Frayn offers no answers.  This tactic stimulates rather than frustrates because he ties it to the philosophical ramifications of Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle.’  The theory proved the impossibility of measuring position and velocity at the same time with complete accuracy; the very calculation changes the status of one or the other.  It nullified causality and, by extension, objectivity.  Meaning became a guess.  The uncertainty principle put humankind at the center of the universe.  But humans, like all particles in the cosmos, behave differently when observed.

“Frayn offers multiple entry points to the metaphysical quandary: How can people be understood when they can’t comprehend themselves?

“You don’t have to know a whit about physics to get caught up in the clever suspense.  The closer you pay attention, the more you’re rewarded.  Frayn makes you feel bright.

“The sharp cast, with Glen Pannell as Heisenberg, James Edmondson as Bohr, and Giulia Pagano as Margrethe, mouths these insights with eloquence and verve.  The ensemble flows in and out of interrogation and confession, monologue and dialogue.  It segues from fond recollection to urgent argument to awkward silence.  And the trio shudders at the Nazi atrocities.

“Paul Barnes’ artful direction inspires the performers to join and split like electrons, like colleagues, like families.  The fusion of feeling onto fission supplies Copenhagen with radioactive theatrics.”

    Peter Szatmary

    The Indianapolis Star

“The British dramatist Michael Frayn is probably best known for his theatrical comedy Noises Off, which the Indiana Repertory Theatre mounted in 1999, and which has won several awards in both London and New York.  Now Frayn’s back at the IRT with Copenhagen, which was named the Best Play for both the Evening Standard awards in London in 1998 and the Tony Awards in New York in 2000.

“I must confess that I didn’t follow the play very well in London in 1998 or in Indianapolis on opening night, last Friday.  I’m not sure it’s a good play, in the conventional sense of the word.  But it is a riveting experience nevertheless.

“Michael Ganio designed both costumes and sets with a spare and simple eye.  Three chairs on a circular platform under a suspended square ceiling constituted the set.  The actors were almost plain, in a sense.  Such people as these are not interesting dressers: they wear the suits of the time, in simple styles and colors.  These are not people who would stand out in a crowd.  But they have the power to captivate the audience’s attention, especially in the second act when they pace around the stage as if they were caged.”

    Bill Liston

    Indiana Public Radio


What I learned. . .

There’s nothing like listening to an atom bomb explosion while driving at a very high speed across the southern Nevada desert at dawn.  Ironically, that explosion was one of the more fortunate moments of my directorial career – at least at the time – as it informed our design discussions later that same day, once I arrived in Indianapolis to begin work on Michael Frayn’s intriguing, inexplicable, vexing, and marvelous Copenhagen.

Frayn’s award-winning play began as a radio drama and then developed into a full blown script for production on the stage.  But devilish fellow that Michael Frayn is, he included no stage directions – not a one – in the published edition of his play, so unless you’ve seen the play before you read it (which I had not), you might not get that at a key moment in Act II, the sound of an atom bomb detonating occurs.  Werner Heisenberg, one of the three characters in the play, simply comments: “And suddenly everything was different.”  Given that much of the script is intellectual argument and discourse, it would be easy to overlook what’s really happening theatrically at that moment, which, had I not purchased and listened to the CD of the Broadway production of Copenhagen, featuring Philip Bosco, Blair Brown, and Michael Cumpsty, would have probably been exactly what I would have done.  But there I was on Interstate 15, barreling across the desert to make my flight to Indiana from McCarran International, coffee cup in hand, sun cresting the eastern mountains and plateaus somewhere north of Las Vegas, when suddenly an atom bomb explosion rocked the sound system in my Honda CR-V.

Later that day, and perhaps a bit too smugly, my first question to the Copenhagen design team was, “well, boys, how’re we going to do the atom bomb?!”  Fortunately, Michael Ganio (sets and costumes) and John Martin (lights) knew to what I was referring.

Our “atom bomb” was one of many exciting features of our production.  The design work was another.  Michael created an ingenious set featuring several geometric shapes: a high-gloss circular floor over which a square shaped ceiling tilted at an angle; two rectangular ribbons encrusted painstakingly with what seemed to be black rubble (not unlike debris Michael had found in photographs of the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), running from high up on the ceiling, under the platform, and spilling out onto the floor in front of the set.  John’s lighting was spectacular. . .  not only did he figure out how to light a three-quarter set with a large ceiling unit suspended above it, he also came up with an ‘after-burn’ effect that lingered for what seemed interminable seconds (if an interminable second actually exists) after the “atom bomb” detonated.  I also remember the seats in the theatre shaking or reverberating a bit from the sound of the bomb.  It was absolutely an E-ticket ride.

But the other E-ticket ride occurred on stage in the work of my cast: Jim Edmondson (Bohr), Glen Pannell (Heisenberg), and Giulia Pagano (Margrethe).  They were a finely tuned ensemble and worked tirelessly at what is some of the most difficult dialogue ever written: riddled with quantum physics and advanced mathematics, and a nightmare to memorize.  I’d heard that Philip Bosco required an ear piece to be fed certain lines in the B’way production; in Indiana, Jim just kept climbing and climbing that mountain till he managed to conquer it – though by his own admission, every time he would pat himself on the back and give himself a silent Tony Award for surmounting one bit of incredibly specific, detailed piece of dialogue, the next lines would come crashing down around him in a heap of irretrievable babble.  His work was heroic, and his performance magnificent.

With only three chairs for furniture and a three-quarter thrust on which to stage the play, my work was about keeping the story clear to all sides of the house.  I took my blocking inspiration from the rhythms of Frayn’s writing and from the little I understood about nuclear physics.  I tried to move the actors like neutrons and electrodes, revolving around a central core, bouncing off each other when appropriate, and coming to rest when necessary. . .  all while trying to keep things logical and as realistic as possible.  Major fun, to say the very least.

I was so fortunate to get to work on this play – and to follow it with All My Sons at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.  If I could have afforded to retire after working back-to-back on two equally great scripts with such wonderful ensembles, I would have.  But on we go, finding – or hoping we’ll find (and be offered) whole new mountains to climb.  

I must confess, however, that when Janet Allen called with her kind offer to direct Copenhagen, I may have done the most convincing job of acting since I left my acting career behind.  I remember telling her how thrilled I would be to get to direct the play (and how grateful I was that she was offering the show to both Jim and me), when all the while I was saying to myself, “Holy shit!!  Quantum physics!!  Yiiiiiikes!!”  I’d gotten no further than 10th grade biology and 11th grade Algebra II in high school.  Science had never been my thing; nor had math – not even in my oh-so-brief architectural studies.

But directing is about research and preparation, and I set to work to learn everything I could.  Mostly what I learned was that Copenhagen isn’t so much about quantum physics and advanced mathematics as much as it is about three human beings endeavoring to find the truth – in their relationships and in the events that brought them together at a crucial time in the history of civilization.

Like many good plays, the stakes are high, the conflict deep, and the ambiguities endless.  I was very happy that at least during that phone conversation with Janet, I myself became a convincing actor.