Mugwumpin's Future Motive Power play at SF's Old Mint unearths the buried passions of Nikola Tesla
THEATER In early December, Christopher W. White, artistic director of Bay Area ensemble theater company Mugwumpin, showed me around the cool, slightly fusty basement rooms of San Francisco's Old Mint. Used apparently for storage now, this large subterranean area beneath the Doric columns and Greco-Roman grandeur of "the Granite Lady" was where, beginning in the latter 19th century, the action really happened: the white-hot smelting of money, in one of the most active U.S. mints in its day. You wouldn't know it now to look around at the gutted rooms with their odd detritus, dim walls, and sunken cement chambers, but in the 1930s one-third of the country's gold was housed here. It's a kind of catacomb of local and national history, and especially the history of money power.
Theater, by contrast, is not a moneymaking enterprise, generally speaking. For that matter, neither is free wireless energy from the air — one of the grandest ideas to motivate the stunningly brilliant and influential mind of Nikola Tesla, the little remembered Serbian-American inventor, Thomas Edison rival, and father of alternating current (AC). But the two come together quite naturally here, underground, where the spirits of industrial wealth and labor commingle so forcefully.
This weekend, which marks the anniversary of Nikola Tesla's death in 1943, also marks the opening of Future Motive Power, an original ensemble-driven work that culminates a year of research and experimentation by one of the Bay Area's foremost practitioners of devised theater. Mugwumpin's production takes place in a section of this very basement, where audiences will alternately sit in and wander around a site-specific piece built from the ground up, with painstaking fidelity to historical details — and a commitment to reaching toward aesthetic and dramatic possibilities in concert with one of the most imaginative minds of the modern age.
His approach to science, like many a great innovator, had much in common with an artistic impulse. Exhibiting a transcendent creative ability, he worked with blueprints in his head, visualizing an idea for a new machine in unfathomable detail. He worked obsessively, often going with little or no sleep. His wide-ranging imagination was prodded by a consistent desire to serve humanity, but he had few close relationships and found everyday forms of physical contact unbearable. He'd probably merit a few psycho-clinical acronyms today, but let's just say he was eccentric. Tesla's brilliance, under-appreciated influence, idiosyncrasies, and sad fate have made him a compelling figure to artists and writers for years, even as his achievements remain historically obscured by, among other things, the legacy of savvy self-promoter Edison.
Alternately supported and bounded by the capitalist forces represented in these serious granite walls under the Old Mint, Tesla had a mind and heart remarkably free of the normal limits. His amazing career — balancing tenuously the forces of nature, social idealism, and the capitalist marketplace — speaks to some of the weightiest themes confronting the world today.
But those come later. Chris White — who plays the thin, fastidious inventor with a primly sympathetic mien, his eager certainty chastened by the half-lost alertness of the outsider — says the idea for the piece simply began with a song he couldn't get out of his head: "Tesla's Hotel Room," by neo-country act the Handsome Family.
"In the last days of wonder
When spirits still flew
Where we sat holding hands
In half-darkened rooms
Nikola Tesla in the Hotel New Yorker
Nursing sick pigeons in the half-open window"