Tesla Foiled

27. January, 2012 Theater No comments

It’s hard to imagine what Future Motive Power would have been like if the ensemble Mugwumpin hadn’t managed to obtain use of San Francisco’s Old Mint to stage it in. It’s not that the Mint has anything to do with the story of inventor and electricity pioneer Nikola Tesla being told in the collaboratively devised performance piece, but so much of the experience is defined by the interactive experience of the crowd moving through the historic building’s basements and vaults at the prompting of the actors that one wonders what people would get out of it in a traditional theater space.

The cast of Future Motive Power. Photo by Pak Han.

Abstract and abstruse, the piece allows you to glean only tiny, disconnected bits of actual information about the Serbian-American developer of AC electricity who laid the theoretical groundwork for inventions such as radio, but it’s an interesting riff on themes of his life if you already know a ton about Tesla. There’s a timeline on one wall in the preshow lobby that you’d be well advised to study.

As the show begins, you hear far-off voices talking, keening and ululating but clearly drawing closer through the corridors. Mugwumpin artistic director Christopher W. White’s Tesla appears in the doorway moaning and slapping his eyes as if battling a tremendous headache. The trio of Rami Margron, Misti Boettiger and Natalie Greene surrounds him, reciting words that Tesla mouths, and all three pull long red strings out of his suit-clad chest as he groans in agony. White plays Tesla with a vague Eastern European accent and a warehouse full of nervous tics, from running back and forth to clatter around behind a screen to gyrating his hips salaciously. It’s hard to know whether his bursts of pain are literal or metaphorical, or in either case what they signify.

Joe Estlak plays financier and philanthropist J.P. Morgan as a screeching, animalistic creature in a leather hood who’s always in a bubble bath, his hands twisted into shaking claws. He also portrays Thomas Edison, the inventor for whom Tesla worked as an assistant before a falling-out turned into a feud, with direct current backer Edison going on the road to propagandize against the dangers of alternating current. Estlak’s Edison is a shameless huckster with a cigar butt always clenched in his teeth. There are a few moments of actual conversation with these characters, just enough to give you the sense that Tesla was, or at least felt, screwed over in business.

Frantic speeches about Tesla’s nervousness, monomaniacal devotion to his work and aversion to being touched alternate or coincide with puzzling bits of business such as Tesla playing a game of “red light, green light” with the triumvirate of women  At times the trio seems to play what might be friends or family of his, if indeed he had any, but if they’re supposed to be anyone in particular we’d never know it. At one point White takes on the role of someone about to be put to death in the electric chair—googling the name in the program tells me it’s William Kemmler, the first to be executed by that method—while Edison talks about how it should be called being Teslaed, just as the guillotine was named after its inventor. (Tesla had nothing to do with developing the electric chair—less than Edison did, in fact—except that it used alternating current.)

For all that the show is hard to penetrate, it’s inventively staged by director Susannah Martin, with plenty of intriguing movement and images. At one point a preselected audience member (actor Emily Morrison on the night I attended) stands up to recite a long explanation of how alternating current works using a script dictated to her through an iPod, offering a welcome touch of down-to-earth humor as she scrambles to keep up with the audio input.

So far all this is in the conventionally seated first section of the piece, but soon the audience is asked to get up and join hands in an immense circle to feel a current passed through them and then to move from room to room—first to Mr. Edison’s Hall of Wonders, a goofy sideshow consisting of Edison pointing to things and saying he invented them. Everyone in the audience has a red string or a blue string tied around his or her wrist, and is told that it will affect the actors’ instructions, but it only comes up once, when one group follows Tesla for a few minutes and the other follows the triumvirate, after which the two groups quickly rejoin. It feels more like a crowd control device than a salient artistic choice. One group lingers with the women as they room through the corridors and vaults talking about domestic routine before and after electricity.

Aside from a speech at Niagara symbolized by a slowly pouring bucket, we seldom know where or when anything is supposed to be, so when we jump to an elderly, addled and embittered Tesla it’s hard to say how much time has passed since we last saw him. Although visually interesting, with pigeons represented by balloons, the last section is especially abstract, and after most of the cast walks out of the room there’s a long moment of silence. I wouldn’t have known it was over if someone hadn’t started clapping.

Tesla was a strange man, and there’s something in him that naturally inspires avant-garde theater (Austin’s Rude Mechanicals also did a fascinating Requiem for Tesla that I happened to catch while living there in 2003), but in a show as way-out as this one, the trouble can be that it’s hard to get a sense of how much of the weirdness is actually related to Tesla and how much is just an experiment of the ensemble’s that seemed interesting at the time. The result is that a great mind whose historical significance has been overshadowed by people with better PR, money and interpersonal skills appears once again to take a back seat to flashy showmanship, the signal of his voice drowned out by mesmerizing noise.

Future Motive Power
Through January 29
The Old Mint
5th and Mission
San Francisco, CA

Show #5 of 2012, attended January 21.

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