Tesla Ex Machina

This one-man biopic of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla by Seattle performer Ricky Coates is remarkably ambitious. Tesla is a nearly mythic figure of tremendous historic importance, but has never been in the center of the public consciousness.

click to enlarge 'Tesla Ex Machina'
'Tesla Ex Machina'

This one-man biopic of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla by Seattle performer Ricky Coates is remarkably ambitious. Tesla is a nearly mythic figure of tremendous historic importance, but has never been in the center of the public consciousness. That, together with the need to present his story in a 45-minute format, created a daunting challenge. Yet Coates cleverly structures his play around an incident in which Tesla suffers from a partial memory loss, and the play lets us watch him reconstruct his memory — his life — piece by piece before our eyes. Coates uses a variety of detailed costumes and props to tell Tesla’s story, including working versions of many of Tesla’s devices. There’s a slow build as the audience realizes the breadth of Tesla’s genius, including his vision of a world connected wirelessly, where data would be readily available to everyone through devices carried in a pocket. Much is made of Tesla’s ill-fated relationship with Thomas Edison, as well as his meetings with Mark Twain and the influence of his mother on his life and work. The title itself (literally “Tesla from the machine”) helps us understand the man behind the  inventions.Coates is excellent, particularly in his physical portrayal of Tesla; he seems deeply connected with the material and we buy him completely as this character. There is a downside to the device of telling Tesla’s story through random memories: The play at times seems disjointed and random itself, despite the fascinating historical backdrop (as well as a tap dance sequence which, while really interesting, seemed particularly random). But eventually Coates wins us over with his intensity and commitment, and we leave not feeling shortchanged at all — unlike Tesla himself, unfairly pushed behind Edison despite his comparable (and sometimes superior) achievements. It’s a fine and detailed performance, well-worth seeing.

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