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Wednesday, October 27,2010

Channeling history

'Farnsworth Invention' electrifies at Riverwalk

by Paul Wozniak
From presidential inaugurations to assassinations, a man walking on the moon to miners stepping out of a caved-in mine, live television has fundamentally changed how we see the world. While the story behind the invention of the electronic television is at least worthy of a made-for-TV movie, Aaron Sorkin's "The Farnsworth Invention" was, ironically, written for the stage. Riverwalk Theatre brings this compelling drama to life with polished production values, a strong leading cast — and limited commercial interruptions.

Jane Falion has considerable experience directing shows with historical connections, moral themes and large casts. It is no surprise then that "Farnsworth" flows very smoothly from scene to scene. Also unsurprising is the casting of leading actors Doak Bloss and Joseph Baumann; Falion has used one or both actors in every show she has directed since "1776." What is notable is the incredible stage chemistry between the actors as they play professional adversaries who never actually met in real life. Baumann plays Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the electronic television (there was also a mechanical model in development, which didn't get far) and Bloss plays media tycoon David Sarnoff, the man who supposedly attempted to steal Farnsworth’s idea and patent.


Sorkin’s story relies on a meta-theater device involving Sarnoff and Farnsworth witnessing and commenting on each other's past actions. It also allows the two men to reflect on their decisions and the motives behind them. Sorkin theorizes that Sarnoff’s harsh upbringing in revolutionary Russia fuels his dog-eat-dog sense of competition, while Farnsworth’s naivet' stems from his scientific idealism.


Bloss is very adept at vocalizing Sorkin’s pithy dialogue, bringing his familiar annunciation, timing and gestures to Sarnoff. Bloss’s best scene comes at the end of the show when his self-eviscerating honesty never feels more real or more poignant.


Baumann, still perfecting his own signature gestures, holds his own in terms of earnestness, as his character slowly wises up to Sarnoff’s underhanded schemes.


An overall solid supporting cast including Kat Cooper, Joseph Quick and Ron Lott (who demonstrates a radio-worthy voice) portrays multiple characters through the tumultuous decade. One of the most gripping interactions occurs between Bloss and Gary Mitchell as their characters discuss a possible business deal with RCA. At moments, their barbed delivery and electric energy prompts the audience to flinch.


The beautiful — although somewhat noisy — Art Deco-inspired set, designed by Falion and Tim Fox, includes a library-style movable staircase that brings many levels to the show. Matt Ottinger designed the sparse yet clean television projections, which support key scenes instead of pulling focus.


"Farnsworth's" themes of scientific pioneering, greed, and fallen idealism are the elements of good drama, and, in Riverwalk’s case, a great production.

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