If you don’t know who Nikola Tesla was, you may find out more than you wanted to know about him — and about his invention, AC current (and electricity in general), from Mugwumpin’s “Future Motive Power.”
It’s a loopy, partly surreal, site-specific piece that examines the mind, and the times, of an early-20th-century mad scientist who’s been neglected by history.
Tesla was a Serbian-American who, as seen here, viewed his work as not just science but also art and, in a way, magic. Mugwumpin, one of The City’s premiere devised-theater troupes, takes that essentially theatrical idea and runs with it.
Literally, at times.
Making brilliant use of the cold basement of the glorious Old Mint, the physically adept performers — directed by Susannah Martin, with artistic director/cofounder Christopher W. White as a nattily attired Tesla — spread the action out in imaginative ways.
At one point, Tesla races hysterically to and fro across the length of the expansive playing area to indicate the genius’ obsessive work ethic.
As we’re told in fragments of text written by the creators and culled from various sources, and delivered by an impressive ensemble (Misti Boettiger, Natalie Greene and Rami Margron), the inventor slept only two hours a night; was a vegetarian who “doesn’t know how to vegetate,”; loved pigeons and never married (“Be alone — that is the secret of invention!”).
White ably projects his character’s messianic zeal.
The play’s first section offers an embarrassment of riches. Among other things, the ensemble dramatizes the workings of electricity itself in witty, humanoid ways. But there’s also TMI on the topic, and the action often moves too slowly, too repetitively and with scant payoff.
More successful are a few key scenarios: Tesla begging financier J.P. Morgan (a weirdly masked Joe Estlack in a clawfoot bathtub) for funding; Tesla competing with a hearty Thomas Edison (Estlack again).
On the whole, though, this first section cries out for shaping: a clearer, tighter arc, a sense of forward momentum.
In the second section, the audience is divided in half for a semi-guided stroll through the halls of the Old Mint, to peer into the vaults where gold was once stored, and to gather in a lobby for a grinning, carny-like Edison’s “hall of wonders” and for several concluding scenes in the hallway.
Especially effective, if late in coming, is the sad and dramatic end to the play, and to the forgotten visionary’s life.
Future Motive Power
Presented by Mugwumpin
Where: Old Mint, 88 Fifth St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Sundays; closes Jan. 22
Tickets: $15 to $20
Contact: (415) 967-1574, www.mugwumpin.org