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Questions abound in bomb drama

'Copenhagen' looks at the very first weapon of mass destruction

One of the most intriguing mysteries of World War II comes to life at Artists Repertory Theatre in Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play 'Copenhagen.'

The question it explores is whether two of the most important nuclear scientists of the era Ñ on opposite sides of the conflict Ñ ever discussed blocking the research that led to the atomic bomb.

In September 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg traveled to occupied Copenhagen, Denmark, to talk with friend and mentor Niels Bohr. Bohr soon would escape occupied Europe with his wife, Margrethe. He ended up in Los Alamos, N.M., working on the Manhattan Project, the United States' effort to develop the atom bomb. Heisenberg led Nazi research along similar lines of mass destruction.

Details of the meeting have never been established, and a half-dozen books have pondered what really took place. Heisenberg changed his story after the war, and Bohr never talked about it.

British playwright Michael Frayn ('Noises Off') examines the dramatic possibilities in detail, with Heisenberg, Bohr and Margrethe looking back at the race for the bomb from beyond the grave and then jumping forward and backward in time to examine various aspects of their personal and professional relationships.

It's a dense and complex play, and an enormous part for Michael Fisher-Welsh as Heisenberg. Bruce Burkhartsmeier is Bohr, and Linda Williams Janke is his wife, Margrethe.

Director Jon Kretzu first saw the play at the Duchess Theatre in London in 1998 but missed it on Broadway in 2000 with Philip Bosco, Michael Cumpsty and Blair Brown. He also saw a touring 'Copenhagen' in Milwaukee, Wis., and a British television performance with Stephen Rea, Daniel Craig and Francesca Annis. The latter pair of productions had problems he intends to avoid.

'This production will be close-up; the Milwaukee one was on too big a stage, and the television show had Heisenberg and Bohr the same age, which doesn't work.' (Heisenberg was Bohr's student.)

Kretzu is delighted to have such Portland veterans in his cast.

'It's an unbelievable line load Ñ Michael Fisher-Welsh never shuts up Ñ an amazing amount of verbiage,' he says with a laugh. 'But it is the most fascinating script. I fell in love with it. It's a great challenge in the way it plays on four planes of meaning Ñ historical, scientific, emotional and metaphysical.'

Kretzu says he cast the three actors because he finds them fascinating to watch. 'They're very intelligent in their use of language, and we've worked together before. This play is like climbing Mount Everest. You want friends on the journey, not novices,' he says.

'Copenhagen' is yet another in a series of scientific or math-based dramas that include 'Good Will Hunting,' 'A Beautiful Mind,' 'Proof' and 'Breaking the Code,' which is an interesting trend in recent years, Kretzu says. But he stresses that the historical and philosophical importance overwhelms that angle of the story.

''Copenhagen' deals with earthshaking historical fact,' he says.

'Any play that starts with the supposition: What if Hitler got the bomb first? is too incredible to think about. It grows from that.'

Contact Paul Duchene at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..