Five Faces of Nikola Tesla: A University Theater production explores creation and identity

A Scene from "The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikoa Tesla"; Sam Bowman

A Scene from 'The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikoa Tesla'; Sam Bowman

“This is a play about production,” explains Phoebe Holtzman, her face lit by a loose lightbulb that hangs from a string above her head. “Production has been considered in every element of the show.” Bare, hanging bulbs are just one element of the set design in “The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikola Tesla,” a new play written by University of Chicago fourth-year Augie Praley and directed by Holtzman at University Theater. Holtzman, a third-year in the college, has been working with Praley on “Tesla” for over a year. “Last year, Augie and I collaborated on the workshop ‘The World According to Charles Barkley,’ and we wanted to work together again,” Holtzman explains. Praley and Holtzman explored several options throughout last spring and summer. They held several casual play readings as a way to bounce around ideas. “I was writing a play, ‘Huckleberry Finn on the Chicago River,’ and in my research I found out that Mark Twain was really good friends with Nikola Tesla. From then on I became completely obsessed with Tesla.” This is how “The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikola Tesla” was born. Tesla, who lived at the beginning of the twentieth century, was best known for his contributions to the invention of electricity. Yet, while Tesla was well respected for his research, his misanthropic behavior and absurd postulations regarding the development of science and technology led his contemporaries to view him as a madman.

In Praley’s play, there are five different Teslas: the inventor, the lover, the dying, the inquisitor, and the puzzler. “I always was interested in how I became different people at different times,” Praley reflects. “Who I am with my family is someone different than who I am with my friends, and both of those Augies are different from who I am with my girlfriend.” The five different Teslas are played by five different actors, two of whom are women and three men. Praley continues, “This is a very cerebral play. I don’t expect everyone to understand all of it; some of the writing is meant to be confusing.” Although navigating the different narratives throughout the play is difficult at times, Praley hopes that audience members come away understanding the central idea. He recites a line from the third act of Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”: “Do human beings ever realize life while they’re living it?” Praley takes a minute to reflect. “That moment is what I wanted to encapsulate.”

In January 2009, Praley finished his last draft of the script and handed the play over to Holtzman. “When rehearsals began, my thoughts around the show started to change,” Holtzman says. “I shifted my thinking. At first, I was thinking about the arc of the show and the accessibility of characters. But in the rehearsal process I began to think about how I could make this script come to life.” Over the past ten weeks, Holtzman, along with the show’s dramaturge Molly Zeins, a twelve-person cast, and a large tech staff, has spent countless hours putting her vision together and bringing it to life. “It’s exciting to see all the ways in which students collaborate on a project about creation and production. I’m excited for people to see what we can produce.” For a show that, according to Holtzman, plays with the ambiguities of boundaries, the world Holtzman has created onstage truly exceeds the limitations of a student theater space and budget. “This production has been an enormous learning experience for me,” she says. “It’s a new work, so it’s a work still in progress. But I’m really proud of what we’ve created.” When the final curtain falls on Saturday night, in contrast to the play’s title, it will not mark the end of the life of “The Last Ninety Minutes in the Life of Nikola Tesla,” but instead the beginning.
Third Floor Theater, 5706 S. University Ave. June 3-6. Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm. $6, free on Wednesday.