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Vancouver troupe sheds light on Edison's inventive rival

Expect a non-traditional approach including tap-dance confrontation

What: Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla

Where: Belfry Theatre

When: Opens 8 tonight,

continues through Dec. 14

Tickets: $23 to $38

(tel. 250 385-6815)

In the play Brilliant!, celebrated American inventor Thomas Edison comes off looking ... well, not so good.

The irony is that the show's director and co-creator, Vancouver's Kim Collier, is a distant niece of Edison.

"Thomas Edison is my uncle, but five generations back," she said.

Opening tonight at the Belfry Theatre, Brilliant! The Blinding Enlightenment of Nikola Tesla sheds light on the important but not-so-well-known contributions of Serbo-American inventor Nikola Tesla.

He is credited with hatching theories leading to AC electricity technology, the X-ray camera, radar and wireless radio.

Performed almost 100 times over the past decade, the critically acclaimed Brilliant! -- created by Vancouver's Electric Company -- won Jessie Richardson awards for outstanding new play and outstanding production.

It's doing boffo box office at the Belfry, with 80 people already turned away from the sold-out opening performance.

In Brilliant! Edison is portrayed as Tesla's evil rival -- a guy who steals his ideas and manages to pilfer $50,000 that ought to have gone to Tesla.

The Electric Company is renowned for its non-traditional approach, emphasizing physical and visual theatre. Typically, a key confrontation between Edison and Tesla is portrayed as a tap-dancing standoff.

While Collier owns nary a piece of Edison memorabilia, she does remember her folks often talking about the celebrated family connection.

"Now, we're just slagging his name," she joked. "He really is the villain of the show."

Despite his mind-boggling achievements, the brilliant Tesla died destitute in New York City in 1943. Ironically, later that year the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a patent that, in essence, recognized the former millionaire as the inventor of radio.

Brilliant!, which oscillates between comedy and drama, began as a humble 45-minute fringe-theatre show. Ordinarily acted by five performers, this new version -- produced by the Belfry -- uses an expanded cast of nine and more elaborate staging. Appropriately, given the subject matter, the Electric Company's show makes full use of technology. Slide-projections, strobe lights and film sit side-by-side with masks and song-and-dance numbers.

Tesla is played by Collier's husband, Jonathon Young, who has portrayed the character since the outset. While it's a challenge to keep the show fresh after so many performances, Young said he's invigorated by the addition of new actors, many from Victoria.

While Young remains constant in the lead role, most of the performers play myriad parts -- including pigeons. Toward the end of his life, Tesla, who might have suffered a form of autism, became tremendously attached to pigeons, feeding them daily with almost religious devotion. In Brilliant! the birds are portrayed by actors wearing giant pigeon heads.

"There was one pigeon he claimed he loved, like a man loves a woman," Young said.

"They gave him some comfort that people couldn't."

Young and Collier are excited about an upcoming Electric Company project. The troupe is developing a stage version of a psychological thriller movie, to be premiered at Vancouver's Stanley Theatre in 2010.

The couple, both passionate about the Electric Company, say they enjoy working in the same troupe.

"It's mostly pretty good," Young said. "The downside is ..."

"We work too much," said Collier.

Added Young: "When we went home on our day off, I had to look at Kim and say, 'Can we stop talking about the Electric Company for one second?' "