Entertainment

Copenhagen

by Adam Brinklow
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 14, 2013
Michael K. Cassidy, Karol Stremke, and Robert Ernst in the Indra’s Net Theatre production of Michael Frayn’s ’Copenhagen’
Michael K. Cassidy, Karol Stremke, and Robert Ernst in the Indra’s Net Theatre production of Michael Frayn’s ’Copenhagen’   (Source:Irene Young)

First things first, to be there on opening night of the very first production by the Bay Area's newest theater company, Indra's Net, was certainly a treat. If you want to catch the show, do it soon before the cast and crew lose that "new car smell."

Bruce Coughran's latest enterprise surely doesn't aim small by starting out with Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," a show so cerebral and intense that by the time it's over you might feel as though you're qualified to add some kind of honorary degree to your resume. You won't be, but you'll still feel like it.

Based on real events, "Copenhagen" opens in Nazi-occupied Denmark, where the greatest German physicist (Werner Heisenberg, here played by Michael Kern Cassidy) and the greatest Danish physicist (Niels Bohr, played by Robert Ernst) of the age have a mysterious rendezvous, both risking their lives and freedom even though neither seem to know why.

The pair are old friends and colleagues but now are divided by the war, and each suspects the other of secretly furnishing plans for nuclear weaponry to their respective sides despite. A melange of intrigue, espionage, high emotion, wartime politics and, yes, quantum physics ensues.

"Copenhagen" isn't an evening of light theater. It's a show for people who want intense, focused, weighty character drama. James Lipton has dreams about such shows and wakes up aroused. It's even hard to categorize: It's not quite a thriller, and it's not entirely a mystery and it's certainly not a political drama, but if it sat at a table full of each of those and stayed very still it could probably blend in with the crowd. Whatever it is, it's for people who want to be blown away by high-octane acting and a story that deals in nothing less than the fate of the world in a concrete and historical sense.

On paper the play almost feels like too much for a cast of mere mortals to handle. Michael Kern Cassidy's steely but fragile Heisenberg serves as lynchpin for this Indra's Net production. Cassidy looks and speaks like an unlikely alloy of Michael Fassbender and Neil Patrick Harris. His precision delivery makes every little thing he says seem laden with unarticulated hazard.

It’s not quite a thriller and it’s not entirely a mystery and it’s certainly not a political drama, but if it sat at a table full of each of those and stayed very still it could probably blend in with the crowd.

But he has a compelling vulnerability too, as if he might come apart at the seams if he deviates from his mode for too many seconds in a row. The other players have nothing for which to apologize, certainly, but Cassidy's performance is on a whole other level; at some point it almost stops seeming real. He freaked us out...but in a good way.

Set designer Lili Smith pulled together a sumptuously Spartan stage area of black space and printed screens for the actors to work in. Director Bruce Coughran must have had his hands full helping the actors manage the many layers of their roles as they address themselves, each other, and the audience, sometimes all at once, but the show never breaks down or seems muddled.

The production does have one glaring (or perhaps blaring) Achilles heel in Theodore Hulsker's sound design, which rather than immersing the audience just distracts us and sometimes drowns out the actors even in the small space of the Osher Studio. It got to the point where we wanted to turn around and tell the tech booth, "Please, let Dr. Heisenberg finish speaking!"

...but that sort of thing is frowned on in most polite settings.

And to be frank, as tremendously talented as the performers are it seems they needed more rehearsal, as they stepped on each other's lines with notable frequency. Maybe it was just opening night jitters? Well, it's forgivable. Nobody demands perfection; just the next best thing. And "Copenhagen" delivers.

"Copenhagen" runs through May 26 at the Osher Studios, 2055 Center St. in Berkeley. For info or tickets, visit indrasnetheater.com

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