War games

By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 16, 2008

The answers are unknowable, of course. And the play has stirred controversy, with allegations arising as to its scientific accuracy, not to mention its portrayal of lightning rod Heisenberg, who spent his 30 post-war years stepping lightly between identities as Nazi thwarter and bomb bungler. But the play is not intended as docudrama. Rather, it is a metaphorical musing in which Frayn applies scientific method (including what the characters might call the Elsinore principle) to a consideration of history, responsibility, and the human heart. The circling and repetitive first act is too long, with most of the play’s substance, not to mention its considerable eloquence, left for after intermission, when Bohr and Heisenberg, under Margrethe’s knowing supervision, relive the conflicts and the accomplishments of the 1920s before attempting “one final draft” of the enigmatic 1941 visit and segueing into an impassioned lament for a near-ruined world.

It’s hard to know why Zigler and the ART wanted to revisit Copenhagen, which had already been presented downtown, at Trinity Rep, and at the outdoor Publick Theatre. Acting artistic director Gideon Lester maintains that the past 10 years, during which the world has grown more perilous, have given the play new resonance. Certainly the troupe brings both warmth and precision to the dense and demanding work. As Bohr, who was nicknamed the pope by colleagues, Will LeBow is less beatific than concentrated, bear-like, and occasionally scathing. The subtle Karen MacDonald is a suitably smart, gracious if not deferential Margrethe, full of sly wisdom and righteous anger. But ART rookie John Kuntz, as Heisenberg, is a revelation. Best known for his zany comic turns, this actor has never been so reined in or so effective. Shifting awkwardly both outwardly and inwardly, his diction as chiseled as Rushmore, he exudes quiet intensity, whether splitting hairs or atoms, making stiff-backed gaffes or calmly recalling a harrowing walk through his defeated homeland. I think we can put to rest any uncertainty about whether this guy can act without a lampshade on his head.

Ken Cheeseman delivers the opening Chorus of Henry V slowly and reflectively, seeming less interested in summoning a Muse of Fire than in making a case for barebones theater. “Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?” Of course not — and therefore what’s the point of 25 actors and an elaborate set? Doesn’t that just make the deception inherent in theatrical presentation bigger? Surely our imaginations can feast as satisfactorily on spa cuisine as on Thanksgiving dinner. Such is the reasoning behind Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s rendering of the Bard’s jingoistic history of the warlike monarch formerly known as Prince Hal (Downstairs at the Garage through February 3) with a cast of five juggling 32 roles, switching in and out of bits of costume, and striding a squarish “wooden O” with a large, obscuring pillar where a doughnut’s hole would be. It’s an impressive feat of deployment, never less than clear-headed, but a little dreary.

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