Live Theater, Live Theater Reviews

Theater Review: Fascism, Physics, and Friendships Collide in COPENHAGEN

Posted: February 20, 2024 at 3:01 pm   /   by   /   comments (0)

From physics to physical confrontation, the St. Louis Actors Studio production of Copenhagen delivers tense drama, political intrigue, and plenty of existential dread. Focusing on the story, director Wayne Saloman’s minimalist staging allows the actors to bring the intensity, making this a must-see production.

Set against the backdrop of occupied Denmark, Copenhagen uses nonlinear time to chronicle the friendship between eminent physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg with their 1941 meeting as a focal point.

The details of this encounter, as well as actions that resulted before and after it, are told from the vantage point of the spirits of Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg himself. Lost in time, the events of this get-together remain shrouded in uncertainty. However, thanks to Michael Frayn’s tense script, audiences can gauge the magnitude of the event.

Friendship and falling out are at the core here as Heisenberg travels to Copenhagen to visit his old friend and mentor. Despite his claims that his visit is serious, Margrethe has suspicions. 

Employed by the Nazis, Heisenberg’s motives are expected to be sinister. Knowing that he is being watched by both the Gestapo (who have bugged his flat) and the Danish underground, Bohr is exceedingly cautious. Heisenberg, also fully aware that he too is being closely monitored, is apprehensive about the reception he will receive from Bohr and his wife.  

With three suspicious parties looking out for their interests, this visit is particularly problematic. Despite his wife’s counsel of ‘no politics,’ Bohr cannot help but comment on his colleague’s current situation.

As a result, the two scientists engage in a clever dance of small talk, designed to feel out their opponent’s intentions. Through mutual reflection, each remembers the long walks they took, talking about physics, their work, and their lives. They also reminisce about ski vacations and happier times.

For Margrethe, navigating the sparring between her husband and dinner guest is complicated. Taking nothing that Heisenberg says seriously she finds herself cautioning her husband while holding back her feelings toward her former friend.

By the end of Act One, however, the nostalgia wears off as Bohr takes Heisenberg to task. Heisenberg, fighting back, reminds Bohr that he made theoretical miscalculations about atomic weapons. The tension mounts as each man draws a line in the sand.

Act Two sees the drama continue as the two men tap dance around the elephant in the room, Germany’s atomic bomb program. As the act unfolds, the setting returns to events after the war. Heisenberg recounts having to bribe an SS guard to flee Germany while Bohr reminds him that he and his wife were rescued by the underground before the Nazis could round them up.

While the plot is filled with skepticism and uncertainty, there can be no doubt that the production is carried by three immensely powerful performances. Aaron Orion Baker alternates from cerebral scientist to moral compass with ease. His Bohr is both angry and vulnerable, demonstrating the actor’s ability to coat the physicist with layers of complexity. 

Joel Moses gives his Heisenberg a complexity of his own. Sometimes smarmy, brash, and arrogant, his portrayal also gives the German scientist a fragility and need for acceptance that make him compelling. Moses’ depth makes it impossible to pin down where he is taking the character next. This creates an unsettling environment for viewers that instills a mixture of emotions.

Lizi Watt may be the bedrock of the entire show. Balancing rage with restraint, she holds her own in ideological clashes with Heisenberg. Her unrelenting dubiousness toward him is matched equally by the take-no-prisoners attitude she has in protecting her husband. A prodigious talent, Watt is fierce.

Filled with misgivings and memories, Copenhagen is a nail-biting, politically charged production that captures the tension of Nazi-occupied Europe and the postwar period. The stellar ensemble throws every ounce of themselves into their performances, giving audiences a gripping and harrowing exploration of what happens when science is confronted by human conflict. 

St. Louis Actors Studio’s production of Copenhagen runs through February 25th. For tickets and more information on the company’s 16th season, visit

Photo credit: Patrick Huber