Theater review: With ‘Requiem for Tesla’ remount, Rude Mechs reaffirm their daring, original theater

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"Requiem for Tesla," 2016. Created by Rude Mechs, Left to right: Hayley Armstrong, Lana Lesley, MIchael Kranes and Matt Frazier as Tesla. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

The Rude Mechs’ current production of “Requiem for Tesla” is the last the Austin-born internationally-recognized theater collective will stage at the Off Center.

The Rudes has lost the warehouse off East Seventh Street in 1999, one of the earlier indie arts venues in East Austin and a symbol of the kind of creative moxie and artistic freedom that once readily flourished in this city.

Forced with a 340% rent increase the Rudes will vacate the Off Center in May. And in a strange twist of timing, this season is also the company’s 20th, remarkable for any arts organization.

And so the Rudes have remounted “Tesla,” its homage to the misunderstood though now popularly mythologized inventor — the Croatian-born scientist and futurist who patented the first alternating current induction motor.

Equal parts exuberant and melancholic, “Requiem for Tesla” represents the type of original theatrical collage the Rudes so deftly generate. And this current iteration builds on the play’s premiere in 2001 and its significant reinvention 2003.

The ever restless Rudes, after all, never leave well enough alone. And the audience so roundly benefits from artists who consider, then deeply reconsider their own work.

This “Tesla,” directed by Shawn Sides, feels every moment a heartfelt valentine to scientific and artistic ingenuity.

"Requiem for Tesla," created by Rude Mechs. Left to righ: Robert S. Fisher, Lana Lesley, Hayley Armstrong. Photo by Bret Brookshire

“Requiem for Tesla,” created by Rude Mechs. Left to righ: Robert S. Fisher, Lana Lesley, Hayley Armstrong. Photo by Bret Brookshire

Kirk Lynn’s dense yet swfit-moving script — poetic, colloquial, clever —  makes as much of Tesla’s scientific accomplishments as the man’s many psychological oddities. And Tesla’s oddities were legion. He loved pigeons, was scared of germs, the dark and round objects; and was obsessed with the number three. He claimed to have visions. He was asocial. (The info-stuffed program on all things Tesla is a whimsical written wonder unto itself.)

Tesla’s peculiarities added to the mad-scientist characterizations he suffered in pop culture in his lifetime. And the Rudes cleverly spin the vintage horror-film trope.

Stephen Pruitt’ atmospheric set, augmented with Michael Mergen’s video design, offers a stage, dark and dusty-seeming, filled with an assemblage of vintage electrical equipment and light bulbs, a resplendent old cord switchboard and a giant Tesla coils that spews a live bolt.

Matthew Frazier plays Tesla with a combination of earnestness that enhances a portrait of Tesla as something of a benign, if weird, genius. (Tesla dreamed of free wireless electricity for all.)

 Requiem for Tesla 2016 created by Rude Mechs featured l to r: Lana Lesley, Matt Frazier, Hayley Armstrong photo by Bret Brookshire


‘Requiem for Tesla’ 2016. Matthew Frazier as Tesla (center) with
Hayley Armstrong and Lana Lesley. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

Michael Kranes, Tesla’s assistant, skitters around Igor-like. Graham Reynolds performs his score live, a kaleidescope of a movie-house organ, maddening percussion on a metal can, melancholic solo piano and the eerie theremin sounds played by Blair Bovberg.

Lana Lesley and Hayley Armstrong deftly play bifurcated roles, each part minor female character and then as villain industrialists George Westinghouse and J.P. Morgan, respectively, who think nothing of cheating Tesla out of his profits, and patents.

The conceit of a bifurcated character shines with Robert S. Fisher who reprises his role as both Tesla’s good friend Mark Twain and arch enemy Thomas Edison fused into one body. Artfully costumed down the middle (designer Leslie Bonnell and her sartorial creativity in spades), Fisher is on one side a white-haired white-suited Twain. On the other side, Edison in all black.

Indeed it’s that willingness on the part of the Rudes to run with disparate sensibilities — or sometime ridiculous impulses (half-friend, half-enemy in one actor? really?) — that’s resulted in such compelling, daring, original theater.

"Requiem for Tesla," 2016. Created by Rude Mechs, Left to right: Hayley Armstrong, Lana Lesley, MIchael Kranes and Matt Frazier as Tesla. Photo by Bret Brookshire.

“Requiem for Tesla,” 2016. Created by Rude Mechs, Left to right: Hayley Armstrong, Lana Lesley, MIchael Kranes and Matt Frazier as Tesla. Photo by Bret Brookshire.


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