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Workhouse Theatre’s “Copenhagen” is a lot to wrap your head around

On paper, Copenhagen is a tough sell: raise your hand if you want to sit on a folding chair for two and a half hours watching three middle-aged white people arguing about morality, politics, and physics. But then, these aren’t just any middle-aged white people: they’re the people who, playwright Michael Frayn argues, virtually held the fate of the world in their hands in the 1940s. THE FATE OF THE WORLD. Sold now? Maybe? This may be the point at which I should let you know that the venue doesn’t sell popcorn.

The point is, these aren’t just any dudes: they’re Niels Bohr (Bob Malos) and Werner Heisenberg (Michael Jurenek), real-life nuclear physicists who were among those who actively contributed to the development of atomic weapons. The story, told in retrospective by the men and Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Muriel Bonertz), centers on an actual 1941 meeting (guess where?) between Bohr and Heisenberg. History has not recorded exactly what was said during that meeting (not that the Germans didn’t try), but Heisenberg left Bohr in occupied Denmark and went back to Germany to fail to develop an A-bomb before the Allies did. Much of the characters’ deliberation concerns why Heisenberg didn’t succeed, under what circumstances he might have, and what Bohr might or might not have said to influence him.

If this sounds a little bit like the kind of story you’d hear from costumed interpreters at the Science Museum, it is. There’s a lot to love here for science nerds—though the science nerd I brought observed that just because science is fascinating doesn’t mean that scientists are—but also for theatergoers who appreciate an ambitious, well-crafted script. Copenhagen won a Tony for Best Play when it opened on Broadway in 2000, and with good reason: Frayn’s script is like a contrapuntal Bach score, with themes repeating and echoing and lacing among each other. Frayn’s multilevel analogies come off surprisingly elegantly given how much weight he leans onto what must have been some of the wonkiest science-themed creative writing exercises ever. For example: how did Heisenberg, in his own life, embody the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle? Discuss, with respect to World War II.

That brings us back to the show description: three people talking. A little material comfort and eye candy would go a long way with this heavy, talky script—but except for a few nice coifs (credit costume designer Brittany Katuin), there’s very little of that in this Workhouse Theatre Co. production staged at The Warren, Minneapolis’s other theater garage. Mark Webb designed the set, lighting, and sound—all of which are minimal and static. That puts an extra burden on the cast, who are all quite good. The small ensemble work well together, and under the direction of Bryan Bevell, all three give the material the patience and attention it needs to be dynamic rather than static.

Both the production and the script share blame for making the characters’ transitions between speaking to each other to speaking to us/themselves a bit stilted, but all in all, this is a solid production of a fine play. Whether or not you leave thinking differently about the human condition, you’ll walk out with a lot more knowledge about the history of physics and an only slightly sore butt.

- Jay Gabler

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