Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Review: I Am Nikola Tesla

Posted By on Tue, Sep 21, 2010 at 3:00 PM

The book Weird Colorado: Your Travel Guide to Colorado’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets (granted, not the journalist’s most reliable source) tells the brief story of Nikola Tesla’s time in Colorado Springs, between May 1899 and January 1900.

Ladies and gentlemen, the illuminating man of the hour, Nikola Tesla.
  • Ladies and gentlemen, the illuminating man of the hour, Nikola Tesla.

Aside from detailing what’s known and not known about his stay — such as the hotel in which he stayed and the mystery behind where, exactly, in Knob Hill his lab was located — the two-page passage describes the highly amusing experiment that occurred on one fall evening.

Supposedly, in an attempt to prove that he could deliver a huge amount of electricity to a distant spot without the use of transmission wires, Tesla and an assistant ran a bolt of energy up an antenna into the night sky. The blue light, at first only six feet in diameter, apparently grew to more than 120 feet, eliciting a great thunderclap that could be heard from Cripple Creek. Then, the power died, not just in the lab, but the whole city. Tesla had caught the Colorado Springs Electric Company’s generator on fire and destroyed it.

Thus ended that business relationship; Tesla was later sued by the company, and his lab was torn down as part of the settlement.

It’s just this type of story from the volumes of Tesla lore that has helped fuel his legacy as a brilliant mad scientist. It’s also the type of tale that’s apt for an exciting documentary-style scene in a play on the man’s life and embattled career.

But that’s exactly what director Murray Ross and his Theatreworks cast decided not to do with their contribution to this year’s All Pikes Peak Reads efforts. In the playbill for I Am Nikola Tesla, Ross says his intent is to honor Tesla, who “was so much about the future,” by creating “an entirely new play, set in the present.”

The director goes on to explain that most of his Tesla character’s dialogue is derived from the inventor’s own writing, and that the cast has otherwise collaboratively filled out the script with their own humor and character personalities. It’s an ambitious project, no doubt conceived on a relatively tight timeline, and for the most part it succeeds glowingly (pun intended).

Our Tesla is a ghost, played smartly by Equity actor Michael Cobb (Hamlet, Antonio’s Revenge, Dar Al Harb), visible only to our protagonist Luke, a sardonic, modern-day, amateur inventor played ably by Sammie Joe Kinnett (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sweeney Todd, several Theatre ’d Art shows).

Like the Tesla that the playbill informs us was digging ditches for $2 a day in 1886 (after parting ways with an unscrupulous Thomas Edison), Luke spends the majority of the play digging a large hole in his mother’s basement floor in order to ground the apparatus that he hopes will prove Tesla’s claim on free, wireless energy transmission that will bring down oil giants and megacorporations. (A timely tie-in to today.) And thanks to the simple but effective scenery design by Roy Ballard, Luke is actually waist-deep, hefting shovel loads of dirt and rock from a large hole cut in the stage’s floor. (After the show, many audience members took time to enthusiastically peer into it.) Around him, electric cords hang suspended from the ceiling, snaking onto all corners of the stage and into multicolored wine bottles.

Stage clutter that creates the look of the mad scientists labratory.
  • Stage clutter that creates the look of the mad scientist's laboratory.

Matching the scenery is the frenetic pace at which Luke feels compelled to dig in order to keep up with the desire of Tesla, his ghost taskmaster. And then he — and the story — lag a bit before a climactic burst of energy befitting the aforementioned story of Tesla’s destruction of Colorado Springs’ generator.

Along the way, we meet Luke’s concerned mother, Andjela, played by Russian-born Equity actress Ludmila Bokievsky, and her lover-turned-Luke’s-annoying-therapist, Rex, embodied by Bob Nash (returning to TheatreWorks’ stage after some 20 years). Andjela delivers some hilarious lines with true color and aplomb. Nash plays his part so cool that he at times feels like he’s under-acting and talking too casually and quietly.

Visual artist Margaret Kasahara, also returning to the stage after a hiatus, plays Izzy, Luke’s nerdy housekeeper-turned-love-interest, worked in through an awkward and somewhat heavy-handed early anecdote about him walking on an Olympic Peninsula beach and pining for a Japanese girlfriend. The gag is good for one laugh, and Kasahara otherwise lends Luke some believable empathy.

It’s through Rex’s guidance and a nifty stage trick that the audience is fed the play’s general theme: something to the effect that “there is no end to magic.” Let that be the take-away message for younger audience members who All Pikes Peak Reads certainly hopes will be tomorrow’s inventors and dreamers.

That magic, or more so the theme of illusion, becomes central to the question of whether Luke is truly being visited by Tesla’s ghost, set on carrying out one last experiment, or whether he’s just a nutty live-at-home loser bitterly reliving his science-fair failure and truly losing touch with reality. A very clever and surprisingly poignant final moment in the play makes an argument for the former interpretation. Or at least, it leaves open the possibility of that magic.

Story-wise, it’s the somewhat uncertain resolve — What did Luke learn from all this? How has he really changed? — that left me wanting a little more. After the climax, the story winds down rather quickly, and a sense of untapped potential that pervades Tesla’s real life looms over the plot.

Audiences entered to find Luke already hard at work on his hole in the stage.
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Audiences entered to find Luke already hard at work on his hole in the stage.

None of this is to say that the play fails to entertain or engage. Visually, especially, it should be commended: I particularly enjoyed archival images occasionally cast on a screen behind the stage and some of the mad-scientist lighting effects. Tesla’s longest monologue, lit only by the giant bulb in his palm, proves film-worthy. Some sharp lines of dialogue, many of them Luke’s, demonstrate collective talent in scripting and clear stage experience.

Though the play doesn’t feel complete in all areas, it certainly doesn’t feel amateur or hokey. Taking on Tesla with an original approach demonstrates its own appropriate inventiveness. Cheers to Ross and crew for digging in and being bold enough to throw the switch.

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