Jeremy William Osborne
Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Aaron Sorkin is known for his fast talking, explain on the move dramas and The Farnsworth Invention isn't any different. Scenes flow together quickly, with no time for set changes. Actors playing multiple roles change costumes constantly. This is a technically difficult show that the cast and crew at Mainstage Irving – Las Colinas has produced superbly.
The set for The Farnsworth invention is in a constructionist style, lacking walls, not hiding the braces behind flats with doors. It's sparse with lots of open space and simple sliding walls to reveal scenes behind them or hide tables and props. This simplicity makes transitioning from scene to scene quick. Clare DeVries set design is irreproachable.
Michael Robinson has his work cut out with this production, needing to create multiple costumes per actor as they change characters. The costumes need to be easy to change quickly and period appropriate, as the majority of the show takes place in the 1920s. Fortunately there is nothing anachronistic in the costumes and each character was well distinct from the others each actor portrayed. Wigs are a big help for the female actors, most of whom changed hair color at some point in the show.
The lighting design is decent. The acting areas are well defined with spot lights highlighting the most important areas. Back lighting is sometimes used for emphasis on actors but beyond that no special effects are used. There are multiple moments the follow spot doesn't accurately pick up the actor it's looking for and distractingly moves into position but otherwise Ian Garland's lighting does its job well.
Jeff Mizener does a good job collecting classic songs from the era for pre-show and intermission music, including a version of The Jitterbug, a song cut from the original film release of The Wizard of Oz. Puzzling, though, is the use of an oscillating electronic hum at a few moments throughout the show. It's a noise that, if used properly, would add tension but the moments it plays are not fraught with tension.
Of course a show about the invention of television is going to have a video designer and Rich Frohlich does well in picking pre-show video clips from the early days of television. The clips are openings of TV shows like The Honeymooners and Gunsmoke. There are also old advertisements, like The Flintstones hocking Winston Cigarettes and The Honeymooners presented by Buick. The backdrops are also still images projected on the white canvas background. Sometimes Farnsworth's schematics appear as the background, giving the audience a glimpse at the complexity of the early television design.
One disappointing thing is that the first transmitted image, a line of cigarette smoke, isn't projected or even shown to the audience. This is a high tension scene in the show and could only be aided by allowing the audience to see the image the characters are describing.
Mainstage regular, Neil Rogers takes on the role of RCA president and NBC founder David Sarnoff. His commanding presence and voice is appropriate for such a strong willed character. He's a master of looking smug when undermining another character.
Jackson Ewing's more down to earth and amiable characterization of Philo Farnsworth is an excellent juxtaposition to Rogers' Sarnoff. He's soft spoken and plays aloof well. His scenes as drunken Farnsworth are not overdone, which is easy for actors to slip into the stereotypical slurred speech and wobbly movement. Ewing is more controlled and puts a lot of effort into appearing as a drunk attempting to maintain control of his faculties with deliberate slow speech and movement.
Tammy Partanen is one of the lucky few who get to play a single character throughout the show. As Pem Farnsworth, Philo's wife, Partanen is strong-willed, scolding Philo for his drinking and standing up to Sarnoff on a chance meeting at Thomas Edison's funeral.
The rest of the ensemble perform their herculean feats of character development for their four or more characters incredibly well. Part of this task was Nelson Wilson and Davis Gilmartin learning a few lines in Russian, Billy Betsil adopting a Russian accent for Vladimir Zworykin, Kevin Michael Fuld using posture and voice to distinguish the old science teacher, Justin Tolman, from the president of RCA, who hands over the reins to Sarnoff. The constantly recycled cast wasn't distracting at all.
As with any work like this, some accuracy takes a back seat to good storytelling. Farnsworth never lost the patent suit or the appeal from RCA, and was paid royalties for his invention. However, it is true he never became rich for any of his contributions.
Mainstage Irving – Las Colinas has an exceptional production on their hands with The Farnsworth Invention. I suggest seeing it, just be sure to come from the north so you're not trapped by the flood waters in the south of Irving.