Rude Mechs' Requiem for Tesla
The Austin theatre collective's biography of inventor Nikola Tesla literally makes sparks fly
Reviewed by T. Lynn Mikeska, Fri., Dec. 9, 2016
Nikola Tesla's life was truly extraordinary, and so is the Rude Mechs' staging of his biography. This kinetic and unique production (superbly directed by Shawn Sides) traces Tesla's arc from his humble beginnings in Croatia to riches and, at last, to rags, with the help of a few famous supporting characters, incredible production design, a hell of a lot of electricity, and just a pinch of theremin.
Upon entering the Off Center, the audience is immersed in Stephen Pruitt's dynamic set – a charged combination of wires, metal, screens, a switchboard, and some other surprises that would excite any scientist, mad or otherwise. In their preshow state, the cast drapes itself over the dimly lit scene, informally regarding each other and their surroundings. Then, with a sudden (and literal) jolt, the play begins. Power crackles, light leaps from the darkness, the ensemble springs to life, and at last we meet the man of the hour.
Matthew Frazier portrays Tesla as a reluctant (and sometimes phobic) genius whose visions are ravaged and distorted in the name of capitalism by Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan, and George Westinghouse. Speaking of Edison, Robert S. Fisher's take on the inventor, direct current aficionado, dog catcher, and the man who toppled Topsy drips with an oily, arrogant glaze. Then, in a mere half-turn, the actor seamlessly transforms himself into Samuel Clemens, who he plays with an air of distinction and a mechanical precision fit for Disney's hall of presidents. Because every eccentric inventor needs his Igor, Michael Kranes steps in as Czito, Tesla's cousin, assistant, and caretaker. This fabulous cast is rounded out by Hayley Armstrong and Lana Lesley, who most notably depict hilarious gender-bent versions of tycoons Morgan and Westinghouse.
From beginning to end, every element of Requiem for Tesla hums with electricity. Graham Reynolds and Blair Bovbjerg's organ and theremin-heavy live score is infused with energy, and Buzz Moran's hair-raising sound design mixed with breathtaking visuals (including an actual Tesla coil) promises to get – and keep – the rapt attention of everyone in the theatre. This particular resurrection of Kirk Lynn's script offers infotainment at its best, zipping effortlessly through 75 minutes like electrons through a live wire.
On the off chance that you become a bit too engrossed in the incredible effects and ampere-heavy ambience to soak up the staggering amount of history offered up in Requiem for Tesla, do not fret. The program is filled with enough information to transform anyone into an instant Tesla authority. So sit back, relax, and let the Rude Mechs shine some light on one of the most interesting people to ever feed a pigeon. You will come away from the experience with a deep appreciation for Tesla's work and an equally deep appreciation for the Rude Mechs, who consistently prove themselves to be one of the theatrical jewels in Austin's arts scene.
Requiem for TeslaThe Off Center, 2211 Hidalgo
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 1 hr., 15 min.