Once upon a time I described Michael Frayn's Copenhagen as a "bad play." Having gone back for a second serving, I'm comfortable standing by that initial pronouncement, with one allowance. When you submit to the script's unreality and meet Frayn's difficult material on its own terms, this "bad play" can make for a fine night at the theater. Thankfully, Theatre Memphis' straightforward take on the atomic ghost story doesn't force ideas as big as all of space into a vessel as unworthy as parlor drama.
And maybe it's a "bad play" because, relatively speaking, it's not really a play at all. There's no conventional protagonist here, and the conflict changes with every pass at an uncertain story with no beginning, middle, or end.
Copenhagen is set in no actual place at no particular time. The characters — physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe — admit to being dead, though it's probably more correct to describe them as being "un-alive." The author's aim here is to project the simulated image of three historical figures across time and space to catalog possible outcomes of a 1941 meeting at the onset of a global nuclear arms race. At times, it resembles a WWII-era thriller, but Copenhagen is a genuinely experimental, steadfastly inconclusive, and demanding theatrical exercise.
Theatre Memphis' revival — like good scientific process — requires some patience. It rewards that patience with smart performances by Jason Spitzer, Gregory Alexander, and Mary Buchignani. Director Stephen Huff's clear, unfussy take on complicated material reflects the spirit of Bohr, the pioneering physicist who expressed complex ideas using practical examples and plain language. To that end, this Copenhagen is still probably more literal than it might be. The staging never takes full, fantastic advantage of the show's determined anti-realism. But when the actors cook, it's the atomic bomb.
Scenic and lighting designer Daniel Kopera has imagined a space that expresses space — and time. Three unremarkable black chairs sit in a pitch-black environment. Formulas and wave signs are scribbled in white (painted) chalk on the floor. The next dimension is made apparent when similar formulas are projected across actors inhabiting the void — actors who live, love, and hate on each other a little, in the imaginary skeleton of a rotting universe. An uncomfortable time was had by all.
That's a good thing, if you ask me.
Few local productions of Macbeth have really wrestled with the play's supernatural side or attempted to empower the show's unapologetically demonic side with all the tropes of modern horror.
Although there's probably a nobler intention underpinning the University of Memphis' current production of Shakespeare's Scottish slasher play, it is most successful in its ability to evoke the viral paranoia and apocalyptic tone of ghastly contemporary cinema. It does so using dense recorded soundscapes and group performance pieces with sexual and sadistic overtones.
There are no witches here, only a malevolent group force with many body parts, speaking with many voices and various intentions, none of them pure. This force physically injects evil into Macbeth and swarms all around his hellspawn wife like devil-gnats.
Mixing post-industrial scenic design with blossoms, boughs, and costume profiles plucked from feudal Japan, director Jung Han Kim has built a sensual feast that's exhilarating but inconsistent. Presentational acting styles may leave some audience members longing for more coherent storytelling and emotional content.
The one real problem I have with Kim's Macbeth — which really is quite an achievement overall — is that it ends with a whimper rather than a bang. So much sound and fury has been built into the show's quietest moments that it has nowhere to go. The last battles, for all their choreography, are pastoral compared to the sleepwalking scene. And Macbeth's head on the pike is accidentally comical.
I get the sense from past work that Kim — a director to watch — isn't especially interested in traditional linear narrative. I also get the sense that this Macbeth might have been more fully realized without all those words getting in the way.