Olney Theatre Center Artistic Director Jim Petosa says he is "kind of an epic minimalist" when it comes to the look of his productions. An article about an art installation called "The Weather Project" at the Tate Modern in London gave him the key to "Copenhagen," which runs through Aug. 8.
The play, by British dramatist David Frayn, imagines an afterlife encounter between Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife, Margrethe, and German physicist Werner Heisenberg. They try to reconstruct a 1941 wartime visit by Heisenberg to the Bohrs' Copenhagen home and argue about Heisenberg's role in Nazi Germany's efforts to create a nuclear bomb. Of particular focus is whether he warned Bohr (who worked on the Manhattan Project to develop an A-bomb for the United States).
The installation at the Tate (which closed in March) by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson included a huge, sunlike disk comprising many lights. "I went, wait a minute: This is a nuclear furnace," Petosa recalls of his reaction to photos of the show. "The sun is the perfect metaphor for this play." He called scenic designer James Kronzer.
"I said, Kronzer -- 'Copenhagen' -- I think I've got the idea," says Petosa. And Kronzer ran with it. His set is spare -- a room 40 feet deep with a huge metallic half-circle at the back that glows with rear-projected light. Mirrors in the ceiling make it appear a full circle. There are bunkerlike walls, a sloping blue floor and three chairs. Says Kronzer: "The use of depth . . . the use of mirrors, which only illuminate and exaggerate the depth . . . the reflection of the half-sun into the ceiling, creating a whole sun . . . and three chairs. I loved it. It was just so simple."
Says Petosa, "This is an idea that requires the scenery and the lights to stand so closely together that they really are one thing." Enter lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner. In the Tate's "Weather Project," he says, "the sun disk on the wall was affecting the 'weather' of the whole gallery. We wanted the sun disk on the set to have a similar effect."
Much of the set is imbued with cool blue tones or an absence of color (costume designer Pei Lee's beige ensembles included), but the disk changes color in response to the dramatic temperature. "The color palette warms as the discussion of fission and the application of it to creating a bomb" intensifies, Wagner says. "We found those particular markers throughout the play and sort of upped the ante for each one in terms of color."
Sound designer Tony Angelini also adopted a minimalist vibe to correspond with the aesthetic of longtime collaborators Petosa, Wagner and Kronzer. He took home an audiotape of a rehearsal and located key moments. "It was easy to see where intensity was built," he says. "I was thinking about the atomic bomb and different ways I could kind of hint at an explosion."
He created an explosive sound on his synthesizer and "processed it in a way to make it sound tight, like somebody hitting a drum. And then I put two of those together to make it sound like heartbeat or a pulse. . . . I used that pulse to underscore certain parts of the play."
Playwright Frayn gives no hints about lights, costumes or sound in his script, so the team at Olney started with a blank canvas, Wagner says. "I found that really interesting. I think we all did."
Fun in the Dark Ages
"I was so thrilled to work on a production of the Arthurian myths that did not include pointy hats," says Mary Hall Surface, who guest-directed "Merlin and the Cave of Dreams," currently at Imagination Stage in Bethesda.
Surface means that British playwright Charles Way, who wrote "Merlin" as a commission for the theater, reaches back before the pointy-hatted Middle Ages to the earliest 5th-century tribal tales of the "real" Arthur. And unlike the rather violent new film "King Arthur," "Merlin" is for kids 7 and older.
In Way's mystical coming-of-age story, the adolescent Arthur learns of his kingly destiny from Merlin, but not the Merlin of Camelot. Surface calls the character a "wild man that lives in the roots of the trees . . . a Celtic shaman." When the Imagination Stage team realized the play's poetic dialogue and strong emotions might be too much for the youngest audiences, they decided to present it in repertory with a 1986 play by Surface, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," geared toward children 4 and older.
"Merlin" runs through Aug. 8. "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" runs through Aug. 15 but takes a break from Imagination Stage today through Saturday to play at Wolf Trap's Children's Theatre-in-the-Woods. It returns to Bethesda July 29.
A writer of other children's theater pieces ("Sing Down the Moon," "Perseus Bayou"), Surface adapted "Apprentice" from its source -- a poem by Goethe. In Surface's version, directed by Imagination Stage's Kathryn Chase Bryer, a lazy but good-hearted apprentice realizes his master has been using magic for evil, so the boy tries to right the sorcerer's wrongs. "The beauty of it is these are really similar stories in certain ways," says Bryer of "Merlin" and "Apprentice."
"Both plays are a metaphor for how all young people have to make choices about how to navigate a world that offers lots of challenges," Surface says. "In both cases, they're extraordinary options: Can I become king? . . . Can I become a powerful and good sorcerer? But they're metaphors for the choices that our kids make."
Charter Charts Its Course
Charter Theatre (www.chartertheatre.org) has found a temporary home at the Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Dedicated to presenting new work, it will premiere Washington playwright Allyson Currin's "The Subject" (Sept. 22-Oct. 17), which was canceled last season because of Charter's problems keeping a permanent venue.
A dark comedy about a young woman who believes she's being stalked, it will star Kathleen Coons and Chris Stezin. Charter will also present its First Draft play reading series on Monday nights at 7:30. Coming soon are "Short Order Stories" (July 26) by Renee Calarco and "The Seventh Degree" (Aug. 9) by Buzz Mauro.
* A new adaptation of Langston Hughes's play, "Tambourines to Glory," about two African American women who start a church, will run Sept. 11-26 at the Lincoln Theatre. Produced by director Kenny Leon and his Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company, "Tambourines" marks a new artistic partnership between True Colors and the Lincoln. Call 202-397-7328 or visit www.truecolorstheatrecompany.com/index.php?pid=65.
* Actors Ian LeValley and Kerri Rambow, who are married to each other, will play painter Jackson Pollock and his wife, Lee Krasner, in "Fifteen Rounds With Jackson Pollock." The new play by Bruce Clarke, produced by Hyacinth Theater Company and directed by Delia Taylor, is at the Warehouse Theater tomorrow through Aug. 8. Call 202-783-3933.
* To complement its current show "Oh, the Innocents," Theater J will present two Sunday readings of new five-minute playlets by area writers under the heading, "Oh, the Washingtonians: Love in the District." "Oh, the Innocents," a comedy by Ari Roth, is about intimations of infidelity among young artistic types in Washington. The playlets will be presented Sunday and Aug. 1 at 5:30 p.m. and are free for ticket holders to "Oh, the Innocents," $5 for others. Call 202-777-3214.