Performance Review: “Future Motive Power,” produced/performed by Mugwumpin at the Old Mint, San Francisco


A review by Christopher Bernard


Mugwumpin specializes in “theater, performance, and strange occurrences.” Nikola Tesla – the wizard of electricity, the rival of inventors Edison and Marconi, victim of a treacherous backer, J.P. Morgan, and hero and anti-hero of  Mugwumpin’s ingenious “Future Motive Power” – specialized in inventing some of the seminal technologies of the last century, and speculated about some of the strangest technological fantasies of our fantastic age, an age when “strange occurrences” have become more the norm than the exception.

So it may have been only a matter of time before the wizards of Mugwumpin met the wizard of Smiljan on their common home ground of theatrical and experimental magic.

There was once talk of the fine line between genius and madness; in Tesla’s case there may have been no line at all – his genius was partly mad (distributing electricity through the air?), and his madness was not half-genius (sending radio signals across hundreds, even thousands, of miles, through air, buildings, walls? But of course! Tesla was the intellectual father of radio, TV, GPS, cell phones, wi-fi; the better known Guglielmo Marconi was, according to some, the thief of Tesla’s ideas who got the undeserved credit for inventing the radio, the Ur-technology of today’s wireless world).

“Future Motive Power,” with its own engaging inventiveness, applies a modernist/postmodernist mélange of theatrical stylizations to the tropes of the bio play. Christopher W. White’s sprightly, goofy portrayal of the eternally eccentric inventor is accompanied by a trio of chorus-like figures (Misti Boettiger, Natalie Greene and Rami Margron are the audacious adepts) to guide and frame the action, and using a mere two more actors (White and the endlessly adaptable Joe Estlack) to animate Tesla and his nemeses; the five performers, their ingenious prop masters, and the lighting and sound designers create, between them, the sense of a thronging, dynamic, endlessly changing world.

Using the barest of low-tech props, the show manages both to create, in the finest steampunk style, a nostalgia for the cranky, industrial modern and to suggest the boundless hopes that science and technology at their best have always lighted in the susceptible hearts of the endearingly left-brained.

The sheer craziness of modern science (which has only gotten crazier since Tesla’s comparatively rational era) is put over with madcap energy and wit, to say nothing of a resistance to such old-fashioned concepts as identity and coherence and even cohesion, that is often liberating, if occasionally taxing for the more commonsensical spectator, as the performers melt away from representing mere people to portraying particles and waves of emergent energy, the needles of inspiration, the voices that forever warred in Tesla’s over-stimulated brain, and other, nameless but highly energetic abstractions. (The script was created by the Mugwumpin ensemble, and this sometimes shows: a more controlling hand, a mightier editor, may have sharpened the piece’s sometimes careening focus.)

Not least of the show’s pleasures is its venue: the variously brick-vaulted, stone-floored, half-lit, many-chambered labyrinth of the basement (once gold-filled, now ghost-filled) of San Francisco’s old Mint, the source of the West’s coinage for much of a century. After a comfortable first hour seated in a spacious, industrial lab of a room, the audience is walked to different locations, concluding in a dramatization of Tesla’s tragic end that ensured his legacy as much as his martyrdom. The audience is made a gentle, but inescapable, protagonist in the show’s moral, its politics, of recognition and responsibility.

There’s talk of extending the run. If that happens, run, don’t walk, and take your science friends with you: the talk sure to follow is guaranteed to eat away much of the night.


“Future Motive Power,” produced and performed by Mugwumpin at the Old Mint, San Francisco, through January 29.

Christopher Bernard is a San Francisco writer, author of the novel A Spy in the Ruins, and founder of Caveat Lector magazine.