Triumphant work that brings a bright spark to a dark time.
Narratives about intense rivalries have always been ripe with dramatic potential, gripping audience members with the ways each tries to outdo the other, and the almost electrifying tension between them. But it takes a truly gifted playwright to spin those narratives beyond a feud, to lead audiences to think about the bigger conundrums of life, and craft it into a powerful piece of art.
Written and directed by Nelson Chia, Nine Years Theatre’s (NYT) Electrify My World is precisely one such piece, with riveting storytelling and stellar performances from start to end. Chia’s script transports us to New York City in the 1880s, a time before electricity was so easily accessible. Our story follows famed inventors Thomas Edison (Timothy Wan) and Nikola Tesla (Neo Hai Bin) engaging in the ‘Current War’, competing over who has invented the better electrical system to light up New York, and later, the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
The rivalry between the two inventors is elevated through the script’s unique framing device, and the introduction of unexpected peripheral characters that enhance the play’s main themes. The play begins in 1920s New York, where a 75-year old Tesla is interviewed by journalists, who are promptly disappointed by his lack of new inventions they can photograph for the press. Tesla’s close friend and writer, Kenneth Swezey (Hang Qian Chou) decides to write a dramatised biography of him, which is then brought to life before our very eyes. Historical fact is sensationalised through Swezey’s eyes, and invites us to question the authenticity of published biographies.
Of course, regardless of how much truth lies in the dialogue, Chia ensures that audience members feel invested in the Current War, thanks to the detailed, well-rounded characterisation of both Edison and Tesla. Edison is presented as a showman, where his presentations are the equivalent of Apple-product reveals, choosing just the right words to use to inspire his audience. But as big as his launches are, so is his ego, preventing him from seeing things beyond his own perspective when his pride is on the line. Tesla, on the other hand, cuts the more sympathetic figure, a Serbian immigrant encountering xenophobia despite his brilliance, and rejected by Edison when he proposes his AC adapter.
What is exhilarating then, is seeing how the inventors are pushed to their intellectual and moral limits when under pressure, as they vie for investors, and even occasionally resorting to underhand means to one-up the other. From considering the dangers of human greed, to the ethics of science, it is these multitude of ideas and behaviours, both positive and negative, that make Electrify My World such a rich, literary text, celebrating the complexity, value and depth of the human experience.
Story aside, Chia’s direction is incredibly detailed, and makes every scene a moment to remember. In a train, the actors still move from side to side even while speaking, to mimic one’s body in motion while in a moving train. A scene where a character recalls her husband drowning at sea, sees her standing amidst overturned chairs rocking gently, like forlorn waves. One scene even sees capital punishment subverted with pitch black humour, as the electric chair is hawked and marketed with gusto, simultaneously entertaining and deeply disturbing.
The success of the play is only possible thanks to NYT’s ensemble, and having performed together for almost every production, share a tight-knit bond that results in the best chemistry seen onstage, allowing every scene to come alive, their stage presence charged with energy. More importantly, every character fulfils an important purpose, each one integral to the success of the play. As our leads, one can practically feel the tension crackling when Edison and Tesla are in the same room; Timothy, in a grey suit, commands attention and power when he speaks, while Hai Bin feels more eccentric and gentle, almost polar opposites in their personalities and physicality.
The rest of the ensemble is also always given their time to shine; Edison’s arrogant brilliance is tempered by his love for his doomed wife Mary Stilwell. Jodi Chan has always managed to infuse her characters with heartrending humanity, where even tapping out Morse code can bring on a wave of emotions. As the inventor of the electric chair and saboteur, Harold Brown is the play’s most villainous character, and Shu Yi Ching relishes the role with glee, on the cusp of being a mad scientist. As Kenneth Swezey, the dilemma on how to balance truth and bias in his writing is evident on Hang Qian Chou’s face when chastised by Tesla. Finally, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley is a surprise appearance, considering the writer died long before the play’s events. Yet in a stroke of brilliance, Chia uses her as a figment of Edison’s imagination, where Mia Chee appears, sage-like, to dispense words of literary wisdom, on how an electric current can be a powerful life force, while also awakening the worst in all of us.
Like the last collaboration with the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (SCCC), NYT has once again pushed themselves to new heights, and configured the space to best present the play. Audience members are seated in the round, where a giant, circular generator-shaped platform has been set up in the centre, with an arc of lighting rigged above it. Designed by Petrina Dawn Tan, there is a clear theme, with the stage itself transparent, while glassy chairs are the only set pieces onstage; all of which ensures that the lighting is the focus throughout the performance. In line with the theme, Jing Ng (Ctrl Fre@k)’s compositions almost always contain the sound of static crackling in every instrumental piece, as if reminding us how integral the invention has been to us. And of course, in a play about light, Faith Liu’s lighting design takes centrestage, with a highlight being the incandescent lightbulbs that line the side of the stage, coming aglow in the most dramatic of moments to illuminate the space.
Electrify My World is the culmination of everything that NYT has been building up to all these years, an epic, all-encompassing story that both inspires and warns us of the dangers of greed and pride, every scene designed to immerse us in its world from the get-go, and the ensemble completely focused on delivering their best. The final scene of the play may be a countdown, yet it is not to an end, but a future of infinite hope and possibilities, in a magnificent, miraculous work that brings a much-needed light to these dark days.
Electrify My World plays from 8th to 17th October 2021 at the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre Multi-Purpose Hall, Level 7. Tickets available from SISTIC
Nine Years Theatre’s popular 9-Fan and Gen-9 membership schemes have also been brought back by popular demand for this show. New 9-Fan members can enjoy a special price of $28 when purchasing a single ticket, and 15% discount for subsequent tickets. The benefits for Gen-9 Membership Club continue for members aged 16 – 25 years old, who will get to purchase a single ticket at $18.