Monday, September 19, 2011

Why You Should See the Play Copenhagen

If you live in Chicagoland, you are lucky.  You can still see the Tony award winning play, Copenhagen, at the Vex Theater in Elgin this upcoming weekend.  And you should.  I might even venture that you must.

My compliant, if not altogether eager, teen sons and husband and I took in the play this past Saturday evening.  It's easy to miss the Vex Theater, located on the 8th floor of the 1920s restored building housing the Elgin Art Showcase.  Old-fashioned dials with hands that point to the floor the elevator is on sit over top of the elevator doors.  "Just like Tower of Terror!" the boys enthused, affirming my conviction to broaden their cultural references beyond Disney.

The theater is a high ceiling-ed room.  In the center is an impossibly small stage.  Three rows of seats, 7 or 8 per row, ring the stage on three sides.  A slightly elevated black platform and three chairs comprise the set.  Seeing the intimate setting, I am nervous.  To be facing the stage head on, we take front row seats approximately six inches from the end of the stage area.  We joke about this being an audience participation play, but truth is, I am nervous for the actors.  After all, this is Elgin, not Chicago and if they are atrocious, I will blush and they will see me blushing in the front row and they will feel more nervous and perform even worse and then my face will flame and it will be an endless awful cycle.

I needn't have worried.  I love Niels Bohr, played by Steve Blount, from the first moment.  I think I am supposed to.  His wife, Margrethe (Susan Able Barry), provides just the right soothing insight and needed reminder that the two sides in WWII were not morally equivalent.  Geoffrey Maher brings both the eagerness and the arrogance to the role of Heisenberg that the script requires.  I am not sure I like him.  I am not sure I am supposed to. 

The small, minimalist stage and set works well for this three character play.  How interesting that a simple gesture, the tilt and angle of a chair, a turn of head, a spotlight, can signify so much.  The creativity involved in using little but using it well intrigues me in the exact same way I am intrigued by Sarah Susanka's Not So Big house books.

In a play about the end of a friendship and building the bomb during WWII, one wouldn't expect humor.  And yet there are moments of it.  Some obvious and played for laughs and some subtle, feeding our inner snobbish Frasier Cranes, wondering if others caught the reference as it flew by.  This is not a play that talks down to the audience, but neither is it one that assumes a working knowledge of or interest in physics or fission.  If you've ever had a friend, you'll find something to relate to in Copenhagen.

One does need to pay attention.  There's hardly a big issue that this play doesn't touch upon--the nature of friendship, the nature of science, the nature of philosophy, the nature of existence, the lost son, the history of WWII, the history of science, nuclear fission, the role of religion in the world, the role of man in science, betrayal, honesty, good vs evil, motive, and above all, uncertainty.  In a play featuring Heisenberg, it's too tempting not to formulate a theme around uncertainty.

The history teacher in me loved that the play left unresolved exactly what transpired between Bohr and Heisenberg on that evening in 1941 in Copenhagen.  Our kids need to see more of the mystery and what ifs and messiness that any human story involves, but too often history is presented with an air of certitude and inevitability that kills any curiosity on the part of student.

The overarching message of the play, sadly, is one of existential meaninglessness.  Be glad you are alive and at least have uncertainty, the players intone.  One day you won't exist, you will be dust, your children and their children will be dust, uncertainty and all knowledge will be gone.  

It is perhaps to the actors' credit that the despair of this message hung palpably in the theater.  I know they were also trying to convey the warped hopefulness that existentialism struggles toward--you have today, go create meaning amidst the uncertainty.  Be happy you have today.

Should you see this play?  Yes.  It tackles meaty themes in an accessible way.  I think that perhaps it is especially our Christian teens who most need to see this play.  They haven't absorbed this message of meaninglessness, of human centeredness as well as many of their peers have and it's important to expose them and dissect the message while they are still in our homes.  Should you be angered by this play?  I was.  I am always angered when people are offered counterfeit instead of Truth.  

Uncertainty is not all we are guaranteed.  My faith informs me that this play has its message exactly backwards.  Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.  Rather than knowledge ceasing at death, now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

I almost wish I had turned this into an audience participation play.  Copenhagen's uncertainty needs an answer and people of faith, sure of what we hope for, need to be part of that conversation.

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