Every theater is a laboratory, every play an experiment — a methodical attempt to create new worlds built in and of imaginary space. Michael Frayn's ambitious, math-centric drama Copenhagen, currently running on Theatre Memphis' Next Stage, is just a little more overt than most. The play's formal conceit: turn traditional dramatic structures into a series of scientific proofs, each of which has been designed to quantify the mechanical aspects of a private meeting between Niels Bohr, the Jewish father of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former pupil and the chief scientist in charge of creating Adolf Hitler's atomic-weapons program. It's a heady story told by ghosts in an otherworldly setting.
Copenhagen director Stephen Huff describes the play as "a thought experiment," like Schrödinger's cat or single subatomic particles that appear to move through two slits at the same time. "As a thought experiment, the play is set in theoretical time and space," he explains. "In other words, time and space are fluid and shift into many different modes. For most of the duration of the play, the characters exist in a time and space beyond their earthly being — or an afterlife. They argue about what happened in the past and relive events and emotions in the present of that nebulous existence.
"None of us are nuclear physicists here," Huff says, describing the play's intellectually intimidating content. But contemporary artists and audiences benefit from the fact that Frayn's play reignited academic interest in the Bohr/Heisenberg meeting, and lots of information has been published in the two decades since its premiere. "MIT has a website that provides summaries of the physics discussed in the play," Huff says. "Because of its tremendous impact, there is a lot of information out there that is geared specifically toward understanding it."
While one doesn't need a degree in science to appreciate Copenhagen, a little homework may enhance the experience.