Thursday, July 27, 2017

Copenhagen: Joshua Kelly directs Michael Frayn's play about a fateful meeting between two physicists

Posted By on Thu, Jul 27, 2017 at 1:23 PM

Joshua Kelly directs Copenhagen.
  • Joshua Kelly directs Copenhagen.

Joshua Kelly does not like to make things easy for himself. In 2015, the Missoula theater director took on Look Back in Anger, the dark and meaty 1956 play by John Osborne about a fairly unlikable man raging against society in post-World War II Britain. This week he tackles Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a three-hour drama based on the true story of Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his former protege Werner Heisenberg, who find themselves on opposite sides during World War II. The play stars E.T. Varney as Niels Bohr, Leah Joki as Margrethe Bohr, and Thain Bertin as Heisenberg.

“It takes place in a kind of afterlife,” Kelly says. “Think of it more as the end of history, where Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe Bohr and Werner Heisenberg are all obsessed with trying to answer a question about what happened during one night in 1941 when Heisenberg comes to visit Niels Bohr.”

That 1941 conversation remains a mystery in real life, but what happened between the two men—who apparently cared for each other deeply—appeared to set into motion who would end up with the atomic bomb.

“It was either Hiroshima or London that gets bombed,” Kelly says. “And so that was the major theme that drove me to it. This is a play about the notion of what might have been. It’s about the moment that happens when you become an active agent in the course of human events.”

Most people know Frayn’s work through Noises Off, the popular farce, which the University of Montana produced this spring. But Frayn’s other plays are much more complex. That doesn’t mean they’re dry, though. Kelly compares what Frayn does with Copenhagen to what Aaron Sorkin did with The West Wing.

“It feels like you’re watching a good story while you’re learning stuff,” he says. “There’s no reason that a subject matter with which you have no technical affiliation can’t be deeply entertaining—and Copenhagen is the same way.”

Exploring what might have been is a common trope in Post-World War II British theater. Kelly is clearly drawn to this idea. In 2014 he directed The History Boys, which deals with history through a subjunctive mood. Copenhagen also works in that imagined space in which ghosts try navigate the imprecise science of untangling a chain of events.

“I love stopping and asking questions about history in that way,” Kelly says. “I think it’s important for all of us to do that. I think it forces us to take responsibility for our own places in active events. Everything we think and do does in fact matter.”

Joshua Kelly presents Copenhagen at the Downtown Dance Collective Thu., July 27 and Fri., July 28 at 7:30 p.m. $10 at the door.

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