Copenhagen, the newest production by Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company, is an impressive dramatic piece that discusses history, science, philosophy, ethics, and the frightening potential for one person to affect the future of an entire population. Playwright Michael Frayn (Noises Off, Democracy) has composed a fascinating, self-aware work that details a mysterious meeting between 20th-century physicists Niels Bohr (Peter Van Norden) and Werner Heisenberg (Brett Rickaby) that occurred outside the Bohr’s Copenhagen home during the Nazi occupation. Copenhagen exists within the swirling uncertainty of memory: each character recalls the details of this crucial conversation differently, raising questions and suspicions about motives.
An intriguing “what-if” scenario regarding the moral implications of scientific discovery, Copenhagen brings Heisenberg to Bohr to ask an important question: would it be morally acceptable to work on a fission-type project, knowing that research might eventually lead to the construction of an atomic bomb? Heisenberg, a German, claims interest only in building a working nuclear reactor, but Bohr, who is half-Jewish, concludes that Heisenberg is developing weaponry for Hitler. With both men under surveillance by the Nazi Party, the one-time best friends and co-workers are tense and paranoid during their wartime discussion. The three actors (including Linda Purl as Margrethe Bohr) each execute their complicated dramatic role with excellent strength and control. Rickaby plays Heisenberg with a bi-polarity of emotion that emphasizes the mania of ambition and the twisted desperation for absolution. Van Norden, as Bohr, carries a powerful stage presence that anchors the performance in emotional realism despite the ambiguous time and place of the play’s setting.
The show’s insinuations create a complex maze of philosophical puzzles. The dialogue is sophisticated, although the use of clever metaphors to connect the various topics is heavy-handed. The most difficult aspect of this piece was chewing through several protracted, gratuitous explanations of physics and history. Though the emotionality intensifies appropriately throughout these comprehensive discussions, some material is excessive and esoteric, and the play squanders its grip on an already loose narrative form. These moments played out like lectures rather than drama, and, while the playwright’s commitment to keeping the characters as true to life as possible is noteworthy, the dry aspects of Heisenberg and Bohr’s professorial personas undercut rising action. Copenhagen might work better as a one-act—without the course of a linear script and sense of stakes created by the regulated use of point of view, the degree of detail to which this story is explored is superfluous.
Well-executed technically, Copenhagen is a thought-provoking play with deeply committed performances. There are some issues with logic in the play’s construction, but with a bit of disbelief suspension, the Rubicon’s production is a satisfying, often forceful exploration of memory, power, science, and the potential for corruption.
Copenhagen runs through September 27, at the Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. Call 667-2900 or see rubicontheatre.org.