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Exhuming the Past 

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Shubert Theatre

A Skull in Connemara

Northlight Theatre

Copenhagen and A Skull in Connemara at first seem as different in content as they are visually. A deeply serious philosophical drama, Copenhagen takes place in a sleek, sterile, brightly lit, bleached-wood lecture hall--an academic's vision of heaven or limbo or Valhalla--in which the spirits of three long dead friends reenact and ruminate on key events in their lives. Raucous and sometimes raunchy, A Skull in Connemara is mostly set in a dark cemetery in the dead of night, where three men--very much alive and as earthy as the soil they shovel--disinter old bones to make way for new corpses.

Yet in both plays the characters' aim is essentially the same: to solve long-standing mysteries by digging up the past and examining sometimes conflicting memories and theories. The stakes are matters of life and death. The mordantly funny A Skull in Connemara revolves around the missing body of a woman possibly murdered by her husband. The thoughtful, richly literate Copenhagen is consumed by the hundreds of thousands of people killed by American atomic bombs at the end of World War II--and by the millions who might have died if nuclear weapons had been developed by Hitler's scientists.

First produced in London in 1998 and arriving here as part of a national tour following a successful Broadway run in 2000, English dramatist Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is an unabashedly speculative account of a much debated historical incident: a private meeting in 1941 between Nobel-winning physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Bohr, a half-Jewish Dane, was a dear friend and mentor to the younger Heisenberg starting in the 1920s. But the Nazi occupation of Denmark left the two estranged--especially since Heisenberg, a German, was in charge of his nation's atomic-research program. For years after the war, that 1941 meeting was a matter of dispute. Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? What did he say to Bohr, and why? And why did Bohr respond with extreme and lingering anger?

In Frayn's play, the ghosts of Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe, gather to revisit their meeting. "Now we're all dead and gone," says Heisenberg, "no one can be hurt, no one can be betrayed." Repeatedly the trio replay the night in question; with each enactment, new facts are revealed, new insights arrived at, new questions raised and left unanswered. We know that Heisenberg asked Bohr for an opinion on the feasibility and morality of atomic-weapons research. But was he spying to find out what the Allies knew? Leaking information on his own progress to Bohr? Hinting at his willingness to stall German weapons research if the Allies did so too? Seeking preemptive absolution from a man he regarded as the "pope" of physics (Einstein being "God")? Or merely trying to exchange ideas in the way the two men had done for years, producing what Heisenberg considered their best work through the passionate, turbulent interaction of their intellects and emotions?

Frayn bombards the audience with jargon and names--Max Born and Otto Hahn, quantum mechanics and matrix calculus, waves and particles, U-235 and U-238. But like Breaking the Code, Hugh Whitemore's drama about gay British cryptographer Alan Turing, Copenhagen is conscientiously accessible to those unversed in the science and technology (Margrethe acts as our surrogate, the nonscientist with whom they must use "plain language"). Frayn's main concern is the passionate disagreements between two enemies who also love each other. (Their fond yet prickly friendship developed in part because of Bohr's generosity toward Germany after its humiliating World War I defeat, the time when Heisenberg came of age--and in part because Heisenberg once publicly challenged Bohr's mathematics during a lecture.) Heisenberg notes that he never actually constructed a nuclear weapon, while Bohr--who escaped Denmark in 1943 and went to work at Los Alamos--was part of the team that designed the Nagasaki bomb; Margrethe staunchly defends her husband as a good man who did nothing wrong because he wasn't a major player. (One ethical issue Frayn fails to address is the idea that President Truman's decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved the lives of American soldiers who would have been slaughtered invading Japan.) Bohr denounces Heisenberg for staying in Nazi Germany to work for a "homicidal maniac"; Heisenberg insists he worked from within to sidetrack A-bomb research at considerable risk ("I carry my surveillance around like an infectious disease") and pleads a patriotic desire to help rebuild his homeland. Margrethe, invariably siding with her spouse, accuses Heisenberg of being an opportunist. They may all be right, of course. Indeed, the play is filled with what Bohr once called "profound truths recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth."

Frayn extends Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle (which, as every Jurassic Park fan knows, basically says that we alter whatever we attempt to study) to philosophy, history, and human relationships. He gives each character's viewpoint its due, knowing that each viewer will interpret the play according to his or her own experience. What Margrethe says of Heisenberg is equally true of every audience member: "If it's Heisenberg at the center of the universe, then the one bit of the universe that he can't see is Heisenberg. So it's no good asking him why he came to Copenhagen in 1941. He doesn't know!"

Director Michael Blakemore has given this very talky play a crucial kinetic energy by having the actors--Len Cariou as a blustery Bohr, Hank Stratton as an impetuous Heisenberg, and Mariette Hartley as a refined but bristling Margrethe--move about Peter J. Davison's Spartan set (beautifully lit by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln) in intricate patterns, occasionally pausing in elegant tableaux. Behind them, in high gallery seats ($30 a pop), sits a smattering of audience members--like angels, or grad students at a lecture, or judges at a court of historical opinion. Watching them as they watch the play, one can't help but realize that few if any of us would be sitting in this theater if not for the actions--or inaction--of the historical figures onstage.

From Shakespeare's Hamlet to Bram Stoker's Dracula and Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Body Snatcher," there are few images more potent than that of men alone in a graveyard at night, shoveling the earth to inter a corpse or exhume its bones. In A Skull in Connemara, Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh tells of Mick Dowd, a middle-aged resident of rural Galway whose wife, Oona, died seven years earlier in a car crash when Mick was driving drunk. Over time, rumors have spread that the accident was actually a cover-up for murder. Now Mick has been hired by the local church for a gruesome job: to recycle graves by removing old bones. (What happens to them? You don't want to know--but McDonagh shows you.) One of the graves to be dug up is Oona's. Will her exhumed skull show signs of violence, providing evidence of foul play? Just in case, local cop Thomas Hanlon has been assigned to oversee the digging--and Hanlon's loutish teenage brother, Mairtin, has been hired as Mick's assistant.

Directed with a sure hand by B.J. Jones (who introduced McDonagh to Chicago in his 1999 Northlight production of The Cripple of Inishmaan) and evocatively designed by Todd Rosenthal (set), Michelle Habeck (lights), and Rachel Healy (costumes), A Skull in Connemara is a darkly comic mystery that revels in ambiguity and multiple plot twists as the characters con one another--and the playwright cons the audience. A cunning variation on classic Irish folk comedy (a bit about a dead man who won't stay dead seems lifted from John Millington Synge's Playboy of the Western World), the play revels in its characters' venality and small-mindedness as well as their vulnerability--and in the profanity of their language as well as its lilting rhythms. The identity of these Irish peasants is shaped not by ancient Celtic legend--and certainly not by the Catholic religion--but by Hollywood: the 1952 John Wayne movie The Quiet Man and cops-and-robbers TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and Hill Street Blues.

But despite all the gallows humor and bitter satire, A Skull in Connemara ultimately conveys the same sense of loss, wonderment, and uncertainty as Copenhagen, thanks in large part to the fine performances of Si Osborne as Mick, John Gawlik as Thomas, Mike Thornton as Mairtin, and Mary Seibel as a booze-swilling, bingo-playing old woman whose suspicions that Mick is a murderer don't keep her from cadging free servings of his poteen, a urine-colored homemade whiskey he serves in glass jars. Without giving away the details of McDonagh's hairpin plot, I can say that Mick's culpability in his wife's death is never fully understood--by the audience, Mick's neighbors, or Mick himself. The play's final moment recalls Hamlet regarding the remains of Yorick, gazing into the impenetrable mystery of the human condition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joan Marcus, Michael Brosilow.

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