Editor’s Note: We asked Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice to stage a “theater review takeover” — whereby a non-theater person writes a reaction to a play they’ve seen. We asked him to review Tampa Rep’s Copenhagen because of its philosophical and political questions. He agreed, and what follows is his reaction to — and explanation of — Michael Frayn’s play.
While my wife and I enjoy going to see the occasional Broadway show at the Straz, it’s fair to call us “non-theater” folk. Even so, I was pleased to be invited to provide my review of Tampa Rep’s latest work.
Excited to see if I had a second career as a theater critic, we headed to USF to see Copenhagen, based on a 1941 meeting between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. The physicists were pioneers in nuclear advancements: Bohr and his wife Margarethe in occupied Denmark, Heisenberg at a German facility under Hitler’s rule.
The last time I took a physics course was at Boca Ciega High decades ago. And while you may know your physicists as if they were famous actors or athletes, I’ve probably heard more about string theory and Shrödinger’s cat on The Big Bang Theory than in everyday conversations.
The play centers around a reunion of sorts between the ghosts of the Bohr and Heisenberg. Bohr was considered the godfather of physics at the time, although here he’s more whimsically referred to as the Pope of the science world. Heisenberg was at one time a prized pupil and part of the family. Awkward pleasantries are exchanged; Heisenberg arrives as nervous as a prodigal son seeking his father’s approval. Things are more awkward with the knowledge that they are both most likely under surveillance: Bohr by the Allied forces and Heisenberg by Hitler’s agents. Heisenberg suggests a walk as a nostalgic activity from their early days, and also as a way to avoid those prying eyes.
During this walk they have a conversation — but about what? That speculation is the driving force of the play: What did Heisenberg and Bohr talk about during that walk?
The characters spiral in and out of what they call drafts of what the conversation could have been, delving into one possibility, only to be pulled back by explanations why that couldn’t be the full story.
The moral question of “Should we make that next scientific breakthrough if we knew that very breakthrough would bring such potential destruction?” is central to the conversations. Their professional rivalries add another element to this moral exploration — both the conversations we see as well as the one we speculate about. Bohr had a habit of exclaiming “Now I understand everything” when he reached a conclusion. While we may never understand everything, the questions that Bohr and Heisenberg asked each other are worthy of discussion today.
Emilia Sargent, a well-known Tampa Bay actress fresh off a year of accolades, directs a play tightly wound in controlled chaos. I mean that as a good thing. Ami Sailee, Ned Averill-Snell and Christopher Marshall give incredible performances. When you are as close to the performers as we were, you can see every nuanced bit of the play. These actors draw you into their conversation and their world. Never once did we feel like visitors in a playhouse, but rather flies on the wall.
Whenever the science theory got too intense, they plain-speak it for the benefit of Margarethe — and the audience.
The theater is small, with an audience capacity of perhaps 100. There is seating on two sides of the “box.” We were fortunate to be in the front row; at times we felt as if we were in their living room. The initial hesitation of seeing such a sparse stage was quickly forgotten once the lights went down. The set — three simple chairs on a black floor, with an atomic-spattering design — underscores the theme but doesn’t obstruct the conversation.
I most likely wouldn’t have seen this show without Creative Loafing’s invitation; the location of USF Tampa presents a geographical challenge for those of us living at our region’s western edge. But now I am so glad I did, and encourage you to take advantage of Tampa Rep and its performance of Copenhagen.
Tampa Rep at USF Theatre Center (TAR 120), 3837 Holly Dr., Tampa | Through Jan. 20 | $25 | tamparep.org | Subscribe to Creative Loafing's weekly Do This newsletter and don't miss politicians reviewing theater, university professors playing drinking games or chickens playing politics. Probably. We don't really know what we'll have in that jam-packed newsletter from week to week.