Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola
by Who Knows
The Playhouse, 25 October 2006
It's something of a surprise that the Vancouver-based Electric Company Theatre's production of Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla is one of the most widely produced and long-lived plays in the Canadian Theatre, touring internationally and nationally since its inception a decade ago. Who knew?
In a way, it shouldn't be a surprise: in the version of it which The Playhouse recently brought to Fredericton, it is clear that the play has an attractive and engaging theatrical presence, and generates enough electricity (not to put too fine a point on it) to fascinate an audience simply with its vibrant energy. Much of the attraction of the production is created by the concept itself: with a bare minimum of imaginatively utilized props (most notably a four-foot ball which rolls on and off stage and is used for an astonishing range of purposes) and clever lighting. The four actors who actually deliver the current production (and who seem to be regarded by the company as replaceable ciphers -- their names did not appear anywhere in the program) were energetic, clear, disciplined and focused, and came very close to making us care about characters who were, well, not all that vividly created by the script.
The play is an example of a genre we've seen fairly regularly in recent years: a historical character or incident serves as the core of a dramatic experience which uses fragmented storytelling on a minimalist stage to draw an experience out of the historical episode or person. In this case, the play focuses on the title character, who, we learn (or knew already) was the early twentieth century's most serious rival to Thomas Edison as an inventive genius. Their stories are quite different, of course: Edison's name became, and remains, a synonym for genius, while Tesla died in obscurity in an apartment in Manhattan, surrounded by manuscripts which may or may not have represented ideas even more earth-shaking than the one for which he's universally given credit: alternating current.
Though the two stories are quite different, there's one fundamental similarity: both attempt to be about the people rather than the ideas, and in both -- unlike, for example, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia or Michael Frayn's Copenhagen -- the demands on the audience's ability to understand complex concepts are kept to a minimum. In fact, both have been sneered at for this (though both have been respectfully reviewed in mathematical journals).