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Let There Be Light 

Tesla: Lost in Thought closes the curtain on an era at Smokebrush

To mark the end of an era at Smokebrush, Kat and Bob Tudor stage their experimental take on Nikola Tesla, the ever-evolving Tesla: Lost in Thought downgraded from its original vision as a "wireless opera" into the kind of performance blurring art and theater for those who see these as distinct genres. The play is in turn agonizing and inspiring, confronting its audience with both the successes and the failures of the innovative approach to seeing art as conflict, art as plot, and art as dialogue.

Among the play's problems may be the fact that no one is recognized as the director of the production. There are creators and there are performers, but did this show really direct itself? Apparently not. The production misses the visionary eye of a director and guide who can bring artistic flashes into a cohesive narrative for the theater.

Tesla is a series of connecting scenes vaguely circling a central image that characterizes the scientist and inventor as the groundbreaking creative free spirit of his era. The Tudors mirror the outlaw artist through a dramatic structure that at its best is daring and intuitive, capturing various perspectives on the misshapen caricature of the man and his legacy.

When the Tudors' gamble pays off, the audience feels on the cusp of seeing a breakthrough in stage production, a play for the sampling era, where images and bits in the form of sculpture, painting, and lip synching are cut and pasted together into a loose semblance of a script. The play lets form fulfill function, making a kinetic structure out of the staid and stationary ingredients of visual arts.

Tesla's vivid inventions lend the Tudors the chance to incorporate dynamic sculpture into the plot of the play. It is almost as if the inanimate objects backstage at the Smokebrush have decided to don costumes and makeup and put on a good old variety show. In one scene, the stage is filled with cardboard cut-out paintings of characters whose lines are dramatized by the performers stepping in behind the cutouts.

The decision to use prerecorded voice-overs for the majority of what passes as dialogue is but one of the play's troubling artistic decisions. Occasionally the effect of a karaoke performance by the cast -- lip-synching the varied and distinctive voices -- is especially noteworthy, but more often it feels like a nod in the direction of a techno-script for which actors are no longer necessary.

In the "live speech" scenes, including several songs, the intensity levels are so inconsistent with the prerecorded speeches that one begins to understand why much of the script could not be left in the hands of a cast somewhat lacking in confidence when charged with creating their own voices. The loosely arranged original songs are enjoyable diversions, though diction and pitch are often sacrificed for the live effect.

In response to audience confusion, the order has been inverted on the two-part evening of Tesla. The film Tripping the Light Electric has been moved from an epilogue following the show to its more natural current state as a prologue to the piece. The black-and-white docudrama helps give the play that follows some context, since the play itself resists traditional concepts of story and plot.

Tripping the Light Electric is a quirky artistic project that offers a straightforward and edgy interpretation of Tesla's year of experimenting with electricity at the foot of Pikes Peak. The movie offers a more buttoned-down presentation of the abstract and experimental ideas covered in the play, and the two pieces together offer a worthy send-off to the old guard at Smokebrush, an original and challenging thesis on a unique concept of storytelling.

-- owen@csindy.com

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