The song's particular brilliance lies partly in connecting Tesla's scientific genius with a spiritualist age, when science, philosophy, and religious mysticism commingled lustily in séances, theosophy, Swedenborgianism, and the like. It churns tragedy and prophesy in the tradition of the American ballad, channeling that "old weird America" Greil Marcus writes about. That deep stream of popular culture (as opposed to top-down manufactured mass culture) has inspired great things from Mugwumpin before (Frankie Done It 291 Ways, for instance, whose wildly disparate theatrical riffs on the "Frankie and Johnny" ballad was a highlight of the 2006 season.) This is Mugwumpin territory par excellence.
In keeping with Mugwumpin's modus operandi, the yearlong process for Future Motive Power involved research and input from each member of the ensemble (Misti Boettiger, Joseph Estlack, Natalie Greene, Rami Margron, and White). By the time final rehearsals began inside the Mint, the piece contained a purposefully anti-linear, fragmented set of scenes very much in the vein of Mugwumpin's past work — a kind of archeological approach to storytelling in which an intricately choreographed and physically dynamic set of vignettes and movement-designs extrapolate freely from certain evocative material fragments.
"At one point the J.P. Morgan character [I play] was just a table and tablecloth with my head sticking out of the top," notes founding company member Estlack. "I'd move around everywhere with this table. I liked that a lot, but we can't keep everything."
The piece also has a director — something not every Mugwumpin production has used. Susannah Martin, an accomplished local director making her company debut, has come onboard to help guide the shaping of the piece, though she happily admits it's not a typical gig working with such a highly collaborative, anti-hierarchical ensemble. Much initial time was spent, she says, "figuring out how I can be of best use to everybody. [Unlike productions with other companies,] it's not my responsibility to hold the vision of this piece — it's all our responsibility."
It is rare to see so much discussion among all parties during a rehearsal, but it seems to contribute to the unusual dynamism of the results. To watch the actors rehearse, it's as if the fluid staging aspired to Tesla's own poetical, mercurial mind — represented here, aptly enough, not just by White but by three female characters (Boettiger, Greene, and Margron) personifying not muses so much as the willful, vaguely unhinged creative forces working with and through him.
Rehearsal continues with these three characters pulling a long electric cord into a square, as Tesla's tussle with rival radio-technology pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (Estlack, who incarnates all Tesla's principal antagonists including Edison) becomes a rumble inside a boxing ring. A moment later the boxing ring has morphed again into an image of Tesla raising Wardenclyffe, the wireless energy tower he partly erected on Long Island with Morgan's money — that is, until Morgan discovered it was power to the people Tesla had in mind, and pulled the plug.
FUTURE MOTIVE POWER
Through Jan. 29
Previews Fri/6-Sat/7, 8 p.m.; opens Sun/8, 8 p.m.
Runs Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., $15-$30 (previews, pay what you can)
88 Fifth St., SF www.mugwumpin.org