Last week we had the good fortune to be invited to the opening night of “Brilliant”, an Electric Company show (there’s a company that deserves a Wikipedia entry) playing at the Belfry. Here’s the blurb:
Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla is an explosive, extradimensional and alarmingly theatrical exploration of one of the most formidable inventing minds of the past one hundred years.
The story, set in turn of the century New York, chronicles the career of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current, whose work in the field of electricity ushered-in the modern age.
The show was terrific. It’s the second Electric Company show I’ve seen, and they produce what feels like the most contemporary kind of theatre. It’s lively and detailed and a little provocative. The company draws on all the tools at its disposal–dance, song, gorgeous projections, clever staging–to render a satisfying if ephemeral vision of Tesla’s life. The show was exceptionally well-rehearsed, and the performances, staging and technical aspects were all a delight to watch.
In one scene, Tesla and Edison have a kind of singing and dancing duel at the World’s Fair. In another, Tesla walks among human-sized pigeons whose physicality is extraordinarily bird-like. The piece de resistance is a hilarious rendering of what early film looks like–all silent, flickering and performed at about double speed.
Plenty of Telling, Too Little Showing
One side effect of all this on-stage action is that the few ‘regular’ scenes feel banal and talky. This is probably reinforced by the play’s portrait of Tesla as an hermitic automaton. Very little character gets revealed–nobody really undergoes a change, in the classic dramatic sense. Two supporting characters thus feel pretty moot. In truth, I’d be happy to dispense with them, so that we just experience the dream-like story and stage magic for 90 minutes.
I also wanted a clearer explanation of Tesla’s inventions. The play takes pains to tell us just how extraordinary and ingenious the man was, but pretty much fails at showing us what he did. There’s plenty of talk about alternating current and direct current (wondering illustrated, I might add, with Slinkies), but nobody establishes why one is better. There’s passing mention of other inventions, but we’re mostly expected to take Tesla’s genius as a given. I’m not disputing that genius. But I do think it’s the play’s burden to explain it clearly.
My final complaint is that “Brilliant” was strikingly similar to “Studies in Motion: the Hauntings of Eadweard Muybridge” (I wrote a short post about it two years ago). That’s not surprising. They’re both biographical studies of difficult, creative inventors working in the first half of the twentieth century.
All of these are minor criticisms. “Brilliant” has already played in Vancouver (though I gather the Belfry’s is a ‘revamped’ production). But if you get a chance to catch the show, I heartily recommend it.
Alas, the Nerd Bias Reigns Supreme
Incidentally, Tesla’s Wikipedia entry is proof that the online encyclopedia has not beat the nerd bias. I checked a bunch of other Wikipedia entries for towering figures–Ghandi, Mandela, Picasso among others–of the 20th century. Not one of them had an entry as long as Tesla’s.
Disclosures regarding my relationship with the Belfry: I just figured I’d take a shot at this. Let’s see…in my final year of university, I did an independent theatre history study course and wrote a history of the Belfry Theatre. So, you know, I’ve always felt a little indebted. I have written a couple short pieces that, years ago, were presented in the studio theatre there (also, indebted). I have friends and colleagues amongst the Belfry’s artistic staff. Our tickets to the show were comped, because Julie and I have done a very little ad hoc consulting for the Belfry. We seriously considered the Belfry as a venue for our wedding…the list goes on and on.