‘Copenhagen’ in Belfast, Rockport

Atomic afternoons

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jan 16, 2013
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Former scientific colleagues/official enemies Niels Bohr (Dean Jorgenson) and Werner Heisenberg (Peter Conant) explore moral responsibility at the dawn of the nuclear age in Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen.” Pictured in a staged reading Jan. 10 at Jonathan Frost Gallery are Jorgenson, left; Conant; and, seated, Elisabeth Goodridge, as Margrethe Bohr.

This year’s Camden Conference has as its theme “The Middle East: What Next?” As part of its related Community Events series, it will present staged readings of a play that explores the beginnings of the nuclear weaponry that so informs the current dilemma.

“It really is the crucible,” said Eileen Wilkinson, who is directing the tour of “Copenhagen,” the three-person play by British playwright Michael Frayn that won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play.

The staged reading was first presented Jan. 10 at Jonathan Frost Gallery in Rockland. It will travel to Belfast for a Sunday, Jan. 20, 2 p.m. presentation at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 37 Miller St.; and to Rockport Sunday, Jan. 27, for a 2 p.m. presentation at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, 162 Russell Ave. Both are free and open to all, sponsored by the Samoset Resort in anticipation of the 26th annual Camden Conference in February.

Wilkinson has had “Copenhagen” on her mind ever since she saw it on Broadway during its initial United States run. A self-described foreign policy geek — she has applied for the Foreign Service, passing the written exam twice but “I think I’m too offbeat for them post-9/11” — Wilkinson has a list of theatrical works that explore the field on stage and the dream of producing them somewhere, sometime. They include “Breaking the Code” by Hugh Whitemore, about decrypting the German Enigma code; and David Hare’s “A Map of the World,” which is set during a world poverty conference in Bombay.

“That one has 10 characters, which would be hard to pull together. As a first go, I was happy to find one with three,” she said.

The “Copenhagen” three are Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe; and German physicist Werner Heisenberg. Frayn’s play explores a 1941 visit by Heisenberg, working on the German nuclear program, to his former mentor in occupied Denmark; Bohr eventually wound up at Los Alamos. The play offers the trio a chance to re-evaluate their historically enigmatic evening from beyond the grave.

Both scientists explored the physics that would lead to the atom bomb, so there is a lot more than theory to talk about. Nonetheless, the science in the play is challenging, both for the performers — even in a reading — and for the audience, and it has been a one for Wilkinson to direct.

“It’s been very daunting. There are no stage directions; you couldn’t really block it out, there isn’t action, really. It’s a beautifully done piece. I love the language! Some things just stick with you, and this play does,” she said.

Wilkinson approached Camden Conference last spring with the idea of a theatrical Community Event, a series traditionally comprising lectures and films. The annual conference has reflected, in some ways, the approach of its subject, she said.

“Foreign service since the Reagan years has abandoned cultural diplomacy; it’s been all policy and economics. The Camden Conference has focused on history and I think it’s important to try to bring some of the cultural element into it,” she said.

Wilkinson had thought to begin working on the reading during the summer, given the difficulty of the material, but didn’t hear back until fall. Then, she said, she was in a bit of a panic about lining up her actors. Dean Jorgenson, a familiar presence at Camden’s Owl & Turtle Bookshop, had been a cast mate in Everyman Repertory Theatre’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner” and was set to go.

“He was very enthusiastic, really intrigued by Bohr,” she said.

At the Penobscot School’s autumn open house, Wilkinson spoke with Elisabeth Goodridge and Peter Conant, an Appleton couple known to Belfast theatergoers for their work with the Belfast Maskers and for Conant’s participation in the “New Vaudeville Revue.” Goodridge teaches French at both Penobscot and Appleton Village schools. When Wilkinson found out both were actors, she invited them over to her house on the spot.

“I live two doors down from Penobscot School, so they came right over! We basically had a ‘My Dinner With Andre’ rehearsal schedule from that point. They’d all come over, we’d eat and have some wine and read and discuss the play,” said Wilkinson.

As it came time to think about staging, they needed more than a living room setting. Wilkinson approached the Penobscot School about using its classroom and it agreed to partner with the Camden Conference in that way. Wilkinson said she likes the space so much, she may offer an acting class there (she originally came to the Midcoast to teach acting at the Workshops in Rockport).

While this “Copenhagen” is a staged reading, that adjective is well used. The actors will be costumed, and the reading uses stylized movement as they stand, sit and pivot.

“I really used the rhythm of the language with that. The play is so challenging — every time we read it, we find something we hadn’t found before. There are so many layers to the structure, so many layers to the language, and the physics is so … quantum,” she said.

Wilkinson said she has gone through every word and every line. The science can be daunting for an audience, so clarity is essential.

“We’re really trying to get the physics ‘in plain language,’ which is what Bohr says … sometimes, though, you have to let it fly over,” she said.

“Copenhagen” will be flying around the Midcoast for several weeks, but Wilkinson hopes there may be more presentations of it in the future.

“It has been such a pleasure working on this! I’m glad the Camden Conference is willing to take this new direction in its Community Events, and I hope people will come and find it valuable,” she said.

The 2013 Camden Conference will take place at the Camden Opera House and be streamed live to the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast, the Strand Theatre in Rockland and The Grand in Ellsworth. For more information, visit camdenconference.org; send email to info@camdenconference.org; or call 236-1034.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

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