Requiem for Tesla
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Jan. 31, 2003
This week's Exhibitionism features reviews of productions from the Fresh Terrain performance festival and symposium presented Jan. 22-26 at the UT Department of Theatre and Dance.
Requiem for Tesla: Rude Mechanicals
The Off Center, through Feb. 9
Running Time: 1 hr, 15 min
The man is telling us about nerve impulses: how they travel along neurons like electricity, but the neurons don't quite touch, so the impulse has to make the connection across a gap. We realize that to make connections by such a leap -- when nothing is ahead to bridge the way from path to path, and things should come to a dead stop -- is a brilliant and daring thing, and this man who has given the world alternating current and radio transmission and a vision of a wireless delivery system for electricity that would make it free to everyone, has spent his life making such leaps. It is what marks his -- though he disparages the word -- genius. Then the man informs us that he is fearful of germs and doesn't like to touch other people, and we realize that there are gaps even a genius cannot cross, and that such physical isolation must cause great strain on one's mental state, perhaps pushing it to madness.
Genius and madness are the ac and dc of inventor Nikola Tesla's life, as portrayed in the Rude Mechanicals' biographical tribute. The one leads to revolutionary developments in engineering, communication, and molecular science, the other to a belief in messages from Mars and compulsive phobias regarding germs, the dark, dirt, and spheres. The two currents appear to take turns powering his life as Tesla makes his way from his native Croatia to the U.S., where his work with alternating current and radio transmission wins him great success but where he is also mocked for his eccentricities and meets his end without money, recognition, or friends, save the pigeons he spends most of his time feeding.
While Kirk Lynn's script doesn't gloss over Tesla's psychological oddities, the main impression left by it and Robert Newell's performance is of a driven, haunted man. Newell embodies the scientist with the formality of a gentleman's gentleman, as if Tesla is intent on controlling his physical self the way he controls electricity. He conveys intelligence through an intense focus in his eyes and a certain wryness -- when he discusses nerve impulses, listen to the way Newell savors the words "like electricity." Yet within this brightest of men, the childhood death of a brother remains a place of darkness that all the electricity in the world cannot illuminate, a fact Newell acknowledges with a wan smile shadowed in wistfulness and regret.
This Tesla is far from the mad scientist the media made him out to be -- no raving Dr. Frankenstein, as Colin Clive had him in the 1931 film, no death ray-dealing fiend in a Superman cartoon. But the Rudes use these images as an atmospheric jumping-off point; they playfully tell Tesla's story through conventions of Hollywood horror, from the scientist's devoted assistant (Jason Liebrecht scrambling up and down the set's iron bars) to his innocent ingénue (Lana Lesley, the picture of Victorian rectitude in a heavy black dress by Leslie Bonnell) to the eerie keening of the theremin (expertly played by Blair Bovbjerg) to a tesla coil sending bolts of magenta lightning angrily arcing through the space. With Sarah Richardson in a Bride of Frankenstein beehive employing Elsa Lanchester's birdlike jerks of the head as she probes Tesla's psyche and Robert S. Fisher playing Tesla's friend Mark Twain and enemy Thomas Edison fused into one body (artfully split down the middle, the left-side Twain in white, the right-side Edison in black), a Jekyll-Hyde freak, we might be in a classic Universal monster movie. The only monsters here, however, are Edison, J.P. Morgan, and George Westinghouse, captains of industry so intent on protecting their wealth and power, they think nothing of cheating Tesla out of his earnings or seeking to ruin him.
Still, the work gives off the quickening charge of those antique fright films, in the urgent pace and frenetic dance breaks supplied by director Shawn Sides; the blazing, sometimes blinding illumination of lighting designer Brian Scott; Lynn's text, dense with words, insights, and humor; the grid of iron bars studded with some 200 bulbs, with which designer Michael Raiford transforms the space into a cage of electricity. This is the second time the company has staged Requiem for Tesla, and it reveals how the Rude Mechs have grown in two years and how valuable it can be for them to revisit earlier material, but mostly it reveals how the Rude Mechanicals create compelling connections -- to their work, to their audience -- with their own brilliant and daring leaps.