Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Rockville Little Theatre Copenhagen

By • Mar 13th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Rockville Little Theatre: (Info) (Web)
Randolph Road Theatre, Silver Spring, MD
Through March 24th
2:30 with one intermission
Reviewed March 10th, 2013

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn is an account of a meeting between Nobel prize winners Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941.

Certain stories require multiple exposures to the material so you can make sense of the story. One example of this is Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. The first time I saw Arcadia I was a bit bored, a bit frustrated, and more than a little confused about what was happening. Afterwards I remember saying “I need to see that again to understand it.” Now that I’ve seen Arcadia several times and stage-managed it once, it is one of my favorite plays. Copenhagen is in the same category: an interesting, yet confusing, play that requires multiple viewings to understand it.

Copenhagen‘s three characters, Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and former colleague Werner Heisenberg spend two hours talking about the impact of a particle. Now from the outset one may be saying to oneself the universal question: “So what’s so great about a particle?” The impact of the discussion is that this particle is the first step towards the eventual creation of the atom bomb. Both Bohr and Heisenberg then spend the next two hours attempting to unlock the ramifications of what this discovery will mean for the world and humanity.

Copenhagen is a talking heads production. In Act I Werner Heisenberg (Ben Swiatek) gets himself pretty worked up in his defense of who should be allowed to have certain information. The German seems adamant that it not go to the Nazis. Swiatek has a strong sparing partner in John Decker as Neils Bohr. The two bounce ideas around the room as they try to make their ideas known and come out ahead. Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Mary Ann McAlister) tries to keep some semblance of peace between the two men. McAlister at times came across as too wishy-washy, but portrayed an excellent referee between the two most brilliant thinkers. In Act II Swiatek does not seem to get as animated, but more philosophical whereas Bohr gets angrier. At one point Heisenberg began an orbit around the stage area, matching a line in the script, but then stopped upstage. It may have been interesting to see him continue as if trying to prove his theory with a visual demonstration. The three have good pacing and the timing is well done.

The set was simply the stage’s playing area, with three black wooden chairs on three intertwined circles painted on the floor. There were times when the chair movement seemed to tell as much of a story as the story itself. The two men coming closer and then moving farther apart coincided with the discussion. Jason Wells’ lighting was interesting, primarily using white and blue lights to convey a coldness to the action.

Copenhagen is an interesting show if you are a student of philosophy, history and physics. If you don’t have a background in those fields, prepare for a slog through some deep material.

Director’s Note

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is a dramatic exploration of a 1941 meeting between two nobel prize-winning physicists: Niels Bohr, a Dane, and Werner Heisenberg, a German, who was also Bohr’s former colleague and protege. In the years since, Bohr and Heisenberg never agreed on what was said, or even where exactly the conversation took place. But one thing is certain — their relationship was never the same. In Copenhagen, the two physicists, along with Bohr’s wife , Margrethe, explore what may have happened — and how horrifyingly different the outcome of the war might have been had the rupture not occurred.

The characters exist in a kind of afterlife, caught in the memory of a specific time. Vivid ghosts resketching the moments or their greatest uncertainty, they drift into personal, isolated remembrances of grief and loss, then into the warmth of collaboration and argument as they try to make sense of it all.

Frayn’s eloquent script draws analogies to human experience from physics concepts. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle asserts that both the position and the momentum of a particle cannot simultaneously be known. Bohr’s concept of complementarity mean means you can observe things as a wave or a particle, but not both at once.

So it is with people and the contradictory truths about them. As Bohr puts it, “We have to choose one way of seeing them or the other. But as soon as we do we can’t know everything about them.” Bohr and Heisenberg are father (figure) and son, mutual sounding boards; they are also enemies on opposite sides of war. Margrethe is a gracious hostess who supports and balances her husband; she also fiercely challenges the two men. The relationships form and reform, observable as one thing one moment, and another thing the next.

When one learns about an event from history, it is in a very real sense happening again at that moment. “The past becomes the present inside your head,” as Margrethe says. The creation of the atomic bomb, for the student or the lover of history books, unfolds not just as a story, but also as an event, with urgency and suspense. For Copenhagen‘s characters, this moment from 1941 happens again as they remember it-the isolated moment of a particle, and then becomes a wave as three people are carried into the action once more.

We have so many versions of our histories, collective and individual. Who did what, when, and why? All the positive and negative charges laid to one another’s accounts…what do they add up to, the lives saved and the lives lost?

Whether or not you were alive during World War II, it is part of human history, and part of you. It will be part of your children and their children. According to Einstein, energy only changes form; it never disappears. Even after the lights fade on these actors, the people they portray will remain.

Photo Gallery

Photo 1 Photo 2
Photo 3 Photo 4

Photos by Caitlin Dennis


  • Niels Bohr: John Decker
  • Werner Heisenberg: Ben Swiatek
  • Margrethe Bohr: Mary Ann McAllister

Production Staff

  • Producer: Alicia Goodman
  • Director: Heather Benjamin
  • Stage Manager: Jacob Kresloff
  • Lighting Designer: Jason Wells
  • Sound Designer: Heather Benjamin
  • Sound Coordinator: Kevin O’Connell
  • Lighting and Sound Execution: Ric Andersen, David Engoron, Alicia Goodman, Ken Kemp, Sarah Ramsdell, Trevor Williams
  • Scene Painting: Ric Andersen, Heather Benjamin, Alicia Goodman
  • Costume Coordinator: Jacy Barber
  • Dramaturg: Bob Ashby
  • Publicity: Laura Andruski
  • Graphic Design: Mitten Design
  • Photography: Caitlin Dennis Photography
  • House Managers: Nancy Blum, Emily Mullin, Kevin O’Connell

Disclaimer: Rockville Little Theatre provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. RLT also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review. And two SBR staff members (Jacob Kresloff and Bob Ashby) were involved with this production.

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