by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
At the entrance to the theater hangs a sign warning that the Tesla coil to be fired during the performance is loud, but not dangerous. This caveat is a compelling prelude to an ambitious production. Assembling the peculiar narrative and bracing eccentricities of Nikola Tesla’s life into a coherent play is no picayune endeavor. Tesla, who has posthumously developed a cult following, appeared to his contemporaries and to us now as a man out of his time. His ideas, which included things like neon light, alternating current, wireless power transmission and radio remote control, seem impossibly advanced and imaginative to an extent that strains credibility. He predicted mobile phones and robotics and compiled nearly 300 patents. Tesla was also a strange and obsessive man with an aversion to overweight people and pearls who believed that chastity was key to his scientific innovation.
The research work of Josh Cragun (and the “Text Team” of Jesse Corder, Brian O’Neal, Anna Sutheim, and Brian Watson-Jones) is evident in every scene of Tesla. The attempt to both capture the essence of an individual and the milieu of a time echoes the structure of texts like E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. In addition to following Tesla’s arrival from Croatia (by way of Paris) through the inventor’s inconsistent career and destitute death, Cragun works to present a picture of fin de siècle America.
Zach Morgan’s Tesla unfolds himself off a ship onto the docks of New York City during the first scene of the play. A rear lit screen provides a late 19th Century skyline of the city as other immigrants disembark. Morgan embodies an appealing and enigmatic mix of charisma and misanthropy. His Tesla is assured and stable, a constant throughout the production. In addition to Morgan who appears only as Tesla; the cast includes Corder, O’Neal, Heidi Berg, Nissa Nordland, and Heather Stone who portray innumerable characters.
The scenes change rapidly, head over heel snapshots of Tesla’s life. The pace is aggressive and challenges the actors to move quickly between characters and develop differentiated affectations and voices. Tesla’s life is an embarrassment of riches for a writer; the incidents of inspiration and invention, and interactions with luminaries including Edison, Mark Twain, Sarah Bernhardt, J.P. Morgan, Grover Cleveland beg to be included in a depiction of the ‘mad scientist’s’ story. The result sometimes feels frenetic, breakneck. Since there are no costume changes and only minor adjustments to Ursula K. Bowden’s versatile set, there are moments of confusion determining if a character is new or recurring. The talent and discipline of the ensemble cast is impressive in bringing it all to life.
And of course there is a demonstration of a working Tesla coil. After inviting Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt (among others) back to his laboratory, Tesla stands at the top of a short flight of stairs, two neon tubes in his hands. The coil is activated and, wirelessly, the tube are illuminated. That this is captivating even in the 21st Century is a testament to Tesla’s genius.
Tesla by Josh Cragun. Presented by nimbus, May 11-June 9. Information at http://www.nimbustheatre.com/discover/production/tesla.