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Farnsworth Invention Tunes In Compelling Theater

November 6, 2011

When science and commerce collide, great things can and often do happen, but not everyone ends up holding the winning hand. That may be the takeaway lesson from “The Farnsworth Invention,” Forward Theater Co.’s impressive production of Aaron Sorkin’s enlightening play. The drama opened Nov. 4 The Capitol Theater in Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Philo Farnsworth (Nicholas Harazin) explains how his early prototype of a television works. (Photo by Nick Berard)

The production, directed by Forward Artistic Director Jennifer Uphoff-Gray, combines the talents of the three-year-old theater troupe and the UW-Madison Department of  Theatre and Drama. The energy is palpable as 16 actors play more than 70 roles, resulting in an evening of compelling storytelling and outstanding theater.

Sorkin, creator of television’s “The West Wing,” has taken a look at the invention of television itself through the eyes of Philo Farnsworth (American Players Theatre’s Nicholas Harazin), the Idaho-born savant and one of several inventors who in the 1920s was looking for ways to “send pictures through the air.” Most who even acknowledged Farnsworth’s folly thought it could be no more than a toy for rich people. One exception was David Sarnoff (APT’s Michael Huftile), a self-made communications giant and head of RCA, who realized the enormous power of Farnsworth’s invention and set out to make it a reality.

Both men were devoted to creating the television—Farnsworth’s name meaning “seeing at a distance.” But the inventor’s fatal mistake in following collaborative scientific method and not competitive business processes led to the invention’s ultimate success and to his own undoing. Many became rich off of the invention, but Farnsworth was not one of them.

Sorkin’s play often explodes the supposed “fourth wall” of the set, allowing Harazin and Huftile latitude to address the audience, handling the story’s exposition neatly and creatively and often narrating each other’s story. The technique creates an empathy between the characters, shedding light on the narrators’ inner thoughts and connecting them beyond the surface narrative.

Gray draws extremely strong performances not only from her two principles but also the supporting cast, from Forward veterans Richard Ganoung and William Bolz in multiple roles down to newcomer Alistair Sewell (son of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Maestro Andrew Sewell and his wife Mary) as both the young Farnsworth and the young Sarnoff. Joe Cerqua’s music and sound design and Charles J. Trieloff II’s sets help creat an engaging mood.

“The Farnsworth Invention” is a play compelling at many levels, and Forward’s production indicates that the company and its director have reached new and impressive stride. The end result is an evening of exciting theater for all.

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