REVIEW: TheatreWorks' 'work in progress' bouyed by great performances and delightful dialogue

Michael Cobb plays the puzzling inventor in "I Am Nikola Tesla." Photo by Courtesy of TheatreWorks

In an evening of many delights, I think my favorite came before the show even started.On stage — is it in the stage? — Luke (Sammie Joe Kinnett) thrusts his shovel into the hole he’s standing in. He doesn’t notice the audience, who casts curious glances as they take their seats for TheatreWorks original production of “I Am Nikola Tesla.”The mechanism isn’t brand new, of course. But it was unexpected, an example of “Tesla” playwright and company artistic director Murray Ross’ penchant for employing innovative ways of engaging his audiences.When it was said and done, I have to say that I liked “Tesla.” The cast was across-the-board solid and the dialogue tasty, and Betty Ross’ costuming, Mark Arnest’s score and Roy Ballard’s set supported the work the way the wind lifts a kite.There’s one caveat, however, and it’s a big one. The script doesn’t exactly add up. That and the neat Hallmark card ending left me wondering who and what “Tesla” was really about.As the play begins, a geeky high school drop-out named Luke (Kinnett) has taken refuge in building an enormous Tesla coil in his mother’s basement. He’s got history with the coil: His smaller version not only failed to win a school science fair, but nearly burned a building down.Luke’s most constant — and mercurial — companion is the ghost of Nikola Tesla (Michael Cobb), who is, as the most feted inventor of late 19th century, probably Colorado Spring’s most famous temporary resident. If you’ve forgotten, Tesla invented alternating current, made Niagara Falls into a giant turbine, had plans for a death ray and was on the cover of Time magazine. For six months in 1899, he experimented with wireless transmissions in a remote lab near Pikes Peak. And personally, he was a complicated man, beset by phobias and obsessions. As in life, he was alone when he died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943.Which all seems enough for a 100-minute play.Still, his bubbly and sentimental mother Andjela (the charming Ludmila Bokievsky) flutters about. Retired high school counselor Rex (Bob Nash) tries to therapize him. And Izzy, (Margaret Kasahara) the maid hired to clean up the mess Luke has made, talks science.As Tesla, Cobb is tasked with downloading the details of Tesla’s life. He does his best and interesting use of projected historical images helps. But Tesla is a character of XXXL proportions, a fascinating Titan who ultimately upsets the narrative balance of “I Am Nikola Tesla.”And that’s the puzzle of writing a play grounded in a real person, especially one as documented as Tesla was. How much of his life, of Tesla himself really serves the story? That’s tough to answer when it’s not really clear why he’s in the play in the first place.Kinnett’s work as Luke, an awkward boy tangled in insecurities and doubts, is thrilling. He cycles through frustration, depression, humor, shyness, idolatry, love and anger with the kind of naturalness that only comes with deep understanding and hard work. Like the rest of the cast, he’s also very funny, easily handling Ross’ savvy and smart dialogue. Without Kinnett, the play simply wouldn’t fly.Granted, there were problems in “I Am Nikola Tesla.” But who knows what the play will look like as Ross continues to massage it throughout the run. Original productions are the kind of risk taking we all should support.

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