Tuesday, May 21, 2013

"Tesla" at nimbus theatre

Following Bohemian Flats, nimbus theatre again tackles a true historical story, creating an original ensemble piece. Unlike Bohemian Flats, a series of short vignettes about the Minneapolis immigrant neighborhood on the river's very edge, Tesla has more of a linear through-line and a hero to root for - the Serbian-American scientist Nikola Tesla. Both plays used historical documents and writings of the time to construct the very realistic world in which the story takes place. Writer/director Josh Cragun and his talented ensemble manage to tell an entertaining and informative story about a long-dead scientist, with some cool science tricks in the midst. I admit to being a bit of a science nerd (I toyed with a physics major), so maybe that's part of why I liked this piece so much, but it works as a theatrical story too. Tesla lived a fascinating life that's well told by nimbus.

Nikola Tesla, a contemporary and one-time employee of Thomas Edison, is best known for developing an efficient and safe alternating current motor, and has a unit of measurement named after him. But like all geniuses, he was also a bit eccentric, and by the end of his lifetime was seen as something of a "mad scientist." The play covers Tesla's life from his arrival in America in 1884 to his death in 1943, with a few flashbacks to earlier times. After leaving Edison's employ, he became quite successful and well-known, with famous friends such as author Mark Twain and architect Stanford White (who was killed in the "crime of the century!"). Unfortunately not all of his inventions were successfully realized, such as his idea for a wireless transmission tower, for which he ran out funds before it could be completed. Tesla was a forward-thinker, imagining a day when people could instantaneously communicate worldwide with a wireless device that could fit in their pocket. Imagine that!

Zack Morgan as Nikola Tesla
Zach Morgan very naturally inhabits the character of Tesla and brings him to life. Tall and well-dressed, polite but firm in his ideas, it's easy to root for his success, which makes it all the more tragic when his success starts to fade. Tesla has a bit of OCD in him, constantly wiping his hands or suit where someone has touched him, an act that seems to increase in desperation as his eccentricities begin to overtake his creative genius. Zack is supported by an ensemble of two men and three women (Heidi Berg, Jesse Corder, Nissa Nordland, Brian O'Neal, Heather Stone) who play many various roles. Interestingly but effectively, the women often play men (19th century science was a man's world), even while dressed in period dresses. I was particularly fascinated by one convertible dress, with a skirt that could be pinned back to reveal pants and a jacket that could be removed. Very slight costume changes such as this help to distinguish characters (costumes designed by Andrea M. Gross). The two-level set (designed by Ursula K. Bowden) with a prominent central staircase serves as a good background for various locations, but most impressive of all are the working science gadgets, various motors and machines, including the huge Tesla coil which gives off glorious sparks in the dark. It's a little like when Steve Spangler visits the Ellen Show - isn't that cool?

Yes, science is cool, and inventors like Nikola Tesla are responsible for all the cool technology we've come to depend upon. nimbus theatre gives us a glimpse into the life of the man behind some of these inventions, and it's quite compelling. They're taking the weekend off for Memorial Day, but return for two more weekends - you can make reservations here. Recommended for science nerds and normal people alike.