The Performant: Power to the people

Tesla (Christopher W. White, ground) and Edison (Joseph Estlack) in an aggressive game of catch re: the invention of electricity

Mugwumpin’s deconstructive history of Tesla electrifies

It is one day and 69 years after prolific inventor and notable oddball Nikola Tesla died of a heart attack, yet in the raw, unfurnished basement of the Old Mint, he stands quite alive before a contingent of captive theatre-goers, explaining his views on solitude.

“Be alone. That is the secret of invention,” he assures us, smiling in the manner of a man who knows he is about to be disagreed with. He has a lot of opportunities to display that same tight-lipped countenance throughout Mugwumpin’s “Future Motive Power,” as being disagreed with is one of the most recurring themes of Tesla’s biography. A man of compulsive and erratic habits and stubbornly-held views on the future impact of his own inventions, Tesla’s indomitable personality could be as hard to fathom as his scientific contributions were impossible to discredit. Channeled by Mugwumpin artistic director Christopher W. White, he alternates -- in a manner akin to his most famous electrical system -- between comedic mania and tragic inflexibility, as the patterns of his life entwine literally and figuratively with those of his dearest-held principles and hard-won triumphs.

As kinetic as White’s performance is, the attention is grabbed initially by a trio of players: Misti Boettiger, Natalie Greene, and Rami Margron, who personify, among other things, electrical forces, rotating magnetic fields, flocks of pigeons, and Greek choruses of skeptics and admirers, buzzing and zapping across the stage or encircling Tesla with a web of cables or a Kabbalistic variety of diagrams chalked out on the bare concrete floor. Founding company member Joseph Estlack plays a rough-necked, cigar-chomping Thomas Edison -- one of Tesla’s main rivals -- with gusto, parroting banal platitudes while swaggering around the stage. (Read Guardian writer Robert Avila's review here.)

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” he boasts to Tesla with a wink, to which Tesla responds dryly that he certainly does seem to sweat a lot. A disagreement over money and methods is further exacerbated by an aggressive game of catch with a leather ball, and a charged scene involving the first execution by electric chair gives Edison the opportunity to assert that death by “electricide” should bear Tesla’s name, just as the unfortunate guillotine bears the name of its own well-meaning champion.

Like many site-specific performances, part of the pleasure of the production lies within its use of space, especially a space as intriguing as the Old Mint, and about three-quarters of the way through the piece, we are split into two groups and given brief reign to explore the warren of small brick rooms and an oppressively weighted corridor that take up the rest of the lower level. Eventually reunited, we are led to the end of the hall by a frail, geriatric Tesla, who lies on a single bed, surrounded only by his beloved pigeons. “Never mind my absence in body,” he assures before his dying, “it is no consequence. I am with you in spirit.” And when the lights come back on for the curtain call, in a blaze of AC glory, you see exactly what he means.


"Future Motive Power"

Through Jan. 29

8 p.m., $15-$30

Old Mint

Mission and Fifth St., SF

(415) 967-1574


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