Future Motive Power, Mugwumpin's site-specific exploration of the life and ideas of inventor Nikola Tesla, is billed as, among other things, the last opportunity for spectators to explore the unrehabilitated vault level of the city's Old Mint. One of the few downtown edifices to survive the 1906 earthquake, the "Granite Lady" is slated to become a museum devoted to San Francisco history -- which means no more invasions by theater troupes.
Under Mugwumpin's stewardship, audiences do get to wander around the historic building's underworld. Just to find your seats, you walk through concrete and granite corridors so labyrinthine you lose all sense of the building's massive size.
But the best parts of the ensemble-created production take place in more traditional environs: an extended sit in one chair in one space. That said, it's an unusual space: a cavernous room so wide as to defy the range of peripheral vision, side-lit by only four or five lights (by designer Wolfgang Wachalovsky) so that each body generates long, crisscrossing shadows. Here, Mugwumpin brings audiences into the mind of an inventor brilliant enough to rival Thomas Edison but too impractical -- some might say "crazy" -- to capitalize on his lucrative ideas.
While it's true that many Tesla inventions, such as alternating current and the precursor to wireless technology, are essential to our daily lives and our understanding of physics, the scientist himself died alone and penurious. (Some might call it a brand management fail.) In Chris White's studied rendering, even when Tesla admits a fault, he is never without his megalomania and his social retardation. When he says things like, "My success was not due to any excellency in the rhetorical or demonstrative arts," in his assiduously deployed Serbian accent, he sounds like he's really saying, "I will now take over the world!" but with all the credibility of Dr. Evil.
White isn't the only actor who helps bring Tesla's lively mind to life. Misti Boettiger, Natalie Greene, and Rami Magron form a chorus that, together with White, shows the intensity and depth of the inventor's thinking by painting it in various physical moods. The cast members make it grueling. Sprints, an almost imperceptibly slow crossing of the legs, and a string (operated mostly by the women that seems to entangle puppeteers and marionette alike) all show a man who, compelled by mysterious forces (or, as he occasionally believed, aliens), ignores his own pain. Or they make inventing playful: A game of red light/green light, with White directing the traffic, shows a childlike Tesla, gleefully all-powerful in the world of his own making. Or they make it lonely: That same game of red light/green light becomes, moments later, a game of pushing people away.
Also effective, and comical, is the contrast between Tesla and his various rivals and obstacles. Joe Estlack plays two roles: Thomas Edison (who invented products that competed with Tesla's but were marketed more successfully) and J.P. Morgan (who supported Tesla as long as he could make money off his inventions). As Edison, Estlack uses an exaggerated middle-American accent, speaking in hokey aphorisms or the easy parallelism of a rural politician making a stump speech. He's even happier avoiding words, simply inciting the crowd to laugh or ooh and ah at his work, or making his rivalry with Tesla physical, in the form of a game of catch or a boxing match. His Morgan is a more absurd contrast: Lounging in a bubble bath (ping pong balls make the bubbles), wearing a mask that makes him into creature who'd inhabit Jabba the Hut's palace, he doesn't speak so much as baa like a manic sheep. Businessmen and scientists don't just speak different languages, Mugwumpin suggests; they're members of different species.
Some of the choices here were less interesting -- suggesting an electric current with a buzzing sound was especially obvious -- but it was when the group split and the audience wandered around the rest of the floor that the show temporarily lost momentum. There was little dramatic justification for the change -- the chorus of women were wailing for minutes on end, and about what? -- and I found myself getting distracted by posters on the Old Mint's history.
The lulls in this production never last long, though, and eventually Mugwumpin finds more interesting ways to use the rest of the space. Near the end of the play, while all the audience lines a well-lit hall, Tesla, now elderly and infirm, pushes himself on a cart past spectators and into an inky tunnel, calling out, "Never mind my absence in body; I am with you in spirit." Minutes later, when the ensemble opens the windows after his death and you're suddenly confronted with contemporary Fifth and Mission streets, all lit up by one of Tesla's many ideas, his words ring all too ruefully true.
Mugwumpin's Future Motive Power continues through Jan. 29 at the Old Mint, 88 Fifth St. (at Mission), S.F. Admission is $15-$30.