Nuclear Theater

Arts-Lead‘Copenhagen’ comes to the new performance space at the Tannery’s Radius Gallery

Is nuclear physics sexy enough for theater? Veteran producer Brian Spencer is betting it is. Bringing Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen to the Radius Gallery-turned-theater starting June 12, Spencer has not only chosen a sophisticated play about a trio of players on the world historical stage, he’s directing and performing as well.

Armed with a master’s degree in play writing, Spencer has been on the local theater scene since the early ’80s. “My high school drama teacher told me I would never make it in theater,” he says. “And that was all the challenge I needed to jump in.” Since arriving in Santa Cruz, Spencer has been involved in countless theatrical projects, and now produces a play a year with his own company SEE Theatre.

Why Copenhagen? “I read the play when it came out in 1998,” Spencer says. “And then I saw it performed a few years later in San Francisco. I thought it would be tough for audiences and expected to see them fidgeting. But they weren’t. It’s a captivating play dealing with pretty big moral issues.” Big is definitely the word for a play that deals with nuclear fission, Nazi alliances and the moral culpability of a wartime trio. Research colleagues who were joined by science, Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr and German atomic scientist Werner Heisenberg were also deeply separated by politics. Bohr, whose Copenhagen laboratory was the center of experimental physics at the outbreak of World War II, found himself deeply conflicted concerning the atomic bomb breakthroughs made by his protégé Heisenberg.

Bohr’s Jewish background and Heisenberg’s connection with Nazi atomic bomb experiments not only made for personal conflicts, they also make for provocative drama.  Celebrated British playwright Frayn (Noises Off) took their volatile relationship onto the stage in Copenhagen.

The premise of the play is perfect for the Radius space. During wartime, Bohr and Heisenberg had worked on particle physics and taken it to the point of enabling the creation of an atomic bomb. Yet something happened at a 1941 meeting between the two men, witnessed by Bohr’s wife Margrethe. Bohr essentially stormed out of the meeting. Afterward, Heisenberg refused to supply the final mathematical calculations to the Nazi research program, resulting in German failure to develop the atomic bomb during the war.

What happened that night in Copenhagen is the subject of Frayn’s gripping two-hour drama, set in an ambiguous time and space long after the death of the three witnesses. The play recreates, from a variety of perspectives, this clash of personalities and morals. Along the way, the dialogue bristles with insider physics jokes, about uncertainty (Heisenberg’s principle) and collisions of motives.

“My motive as a producer is always to give something important to the audience, to provide theater that affects them in some way,” says Spencer, who is convinced that Copenhagen, with its searing political and ethical undercurrent, is a great fit for Santa Cruz audiences. “My feeling is that the moral questions raised will appeal to our audiences who really enjoy thought-provoking theater.”

Admitting that putting together a dramatic production from the ground up is “absolutely fun,” Spencer cautions that Copenhagen “is not an action show, it’s a talking show,” a show about big personalities and big ideas. “It’s got a minimal set and a small cast,” he says. Originally another actor was cast as Bohr, “But when he dropped out I stepped in. I loved the character,” Spencer says. “Audiences will want to pay close attention. This is absorbing theater,” he promises.

Runs June 12-28; 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 12; 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13; 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 19; 3 p.m. Sunday, June 21; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 25, 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 26 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 25; and 3 p.m. Sunday, June 28. Radius Gallery, 1050 River St., Studio 127, Tannery Arts Center, Santa Cruz. Tickets: $18 online, $20 at the door. PHOTO: Brian Spencer as Niels Bohr; Lucien Leutzinger as Werner Heisenberg; and Mindy Pedlar as Margrethe Bohr in ‘Copenhagen.’ JANA MARCUS

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