Current events

Pub date January 3, 2012
WriterRobert Avila

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”


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.


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)

Old Mint

88 Fifth St., SF