Sunday, April 09, 2006

Performance: A Feast of St. Nikola

Great Men of Genius created and performed by Mike Daisey, directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, Capitol Hill Arts Center, April 6, 7, 8 and 9.

OK, so if you skip down a couple entries in this journal, you get the background on how we ended up at CHAC for Mike Daisey's Great Men of Genius series - four nights, each night on a different man. We caught Brecht on Thursday, missed Barnum on Friday, and Saturday night was Nikola Tesla's turn.

Tesla was a patron saint of mad scientists, which is odd since so much of his work is actually incredibly vital for what we call the modern world. AC current, electromagnetic motors, X-Rays - all Tesla coolness. Yet this crucial figure has been marginized over the decades, probably because of things like his (possibly successful) earthquake machine and his (possibly unsuccessful) death ray. Yet even among the mads, Tesla is more exciting in theory than in reality - he was mild-mannered, quirky guy, likely with OCD, someone you would not want to hang around. He was brilliant, but sounds more dynamic in vague memory than in the man he was. In this he reminds me of Lovecraft, another creator that he both predates and postdates.

Daisey bounces through Tesla life, in particularly his relationships with men we DO remember, Edison and Westinghouse. Telsa may have been the last great creator/inventors, who produced wonders out of the air, carving in images in his mind that only he could see. Edison was a technologist, who invented a better way to invent, and in that way shared a history with Eli Whitney, who made a better way to make things. Edison was process, Tesla was genius. Westinghouse, a patron saint within my home town (Pittsburgh), comes out as a tool of Tesla's vengeance against Edison - the method by which he proves them all wrong in classic Mad Science style.

Daisey weaves Tesla's life through his own, in particular his youth, when he was a Big Science Geek. His romance with science was both longer and deeper than my own, and more passionate, spurred by early-80s fears of mass apocalypse. I can see his point, in that I went through my own "big science" phase as well as "end of the world" phase, though mine was fueled more by Late Great Planet Earth than by Red Dawn. And how in the end he turned away from Big Science (indeed, towards the Brechtian Era covered in the first performance), and brought it full circle to Tesla's Death Ray.

Daisey feels on firmer ground here - while his Brecht monologue was strong, his Tesla work feels more rooted (he has visited the subject before, and I think there is enough Teslania out there for a couple more monologues). And in dredging up those old memories, he reminded me of my own Big Science Romance, tucked like a bookmark in the back of Scientific America. And yeah, while I too have fallen to wayside in my scientific geekery, there is still a spark of the Tesla Coil within me, looking for ground.

And yes, the Lovely Bride moved around her schedule so we can do Hubbard on Sunday night. I'm interested in how this all falls together. In the mean time, I want to really check out the dates of Tesla's death ray demonstration at the Tungusta Explosion in Siberia.

More later,

PS - Hi to Chris and Nikchik from across the crowded room!

PPS - Written at 3 AM local time when awakened with a sour stomach, corrected ten hours later when I discovered a major piece of dislexia in the writeup.