Adventures with a mad scientist's lightning machine.

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Nov. 2 2005 5:42 PM

The Coil and I

Adventures with a mad scientist's lightning machine.

(Continued from Page 1)

"Mike," he says, very deliberately. "You'd better know whether you have any metal in your body."

By now I'm sure that my body is metal-free, but I'm still nervous as Jaime flips two switches and then turns an enormous knob. A high-pitched schreeak fills the room, like sheet metal getting torn. Lightning pours out of the toroid and writhes around like a cat on a short leash. Arcs leap out and dance across chairs, the ceiling, and the floor.

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Jaime gestures for me to get closer to the coil. As I do so nervously, he crouches lower behind the control box, continuously adjusting that one knob with the intensity of a Trappist monk. He is very proud of the coil, and touches it constantly as he tells us he will need a great deal of money to bring it to performances. When we regretfully decline, he abruptly reverses and says he can do it for free, so long as we provide him with dinner. This sounds too good to be true, and, in fact, it is. A few days later, he changes his mind again and calls demanding compensation.

It's a lot of money, but I've decided to fight for the coil. I've become enchanted by it. I want to be the mad scientist, bringing a terrifying and glorious new machine out in front of the masses. Just once, I want to shout, "Bwahahhahahaha!" and really mean it.

Just a day before the opening, Alex the artistic director tells me that the designers and technicians have demanded a meeting to discuss the coil. He explains that the designers and technicians are totally freaked out—they fear it will blow out all of their electronics and who knows what else. Tech has already been going poorly—the live rabbits are dying of an unknown ailment and the multimedia is on the fritz. The last thing anyone wants is a lightning-throwing death machine.

We all meet in the theater: designers, technicians, me, and Jaime, the Keeper of the Coil. Alex tosses out what should be a softball question: "Jaime, what's the worst thing that could happen with the coil?" I turn expectantly, eager to hear his impassioned defense. He thinks for a moment, his lips moving, and then says, slowly, "Well ... it could kill someone."

The designers are horrified—they were worried about the multimedia getting ruined and now we're talking about murdering audience members. "Jaime," I say, hurriedly spinning his answer, "what you mean by that is that the coil could kill someone if they doused themselves in water and jumped on top of it, right, which is why we have a safety zone, right?"

"Yes, that's true," he responds. "And it's also true that sometimes electricity does whatever it wants. It's hard to predict."

The theater management hears about our meeting and wants us to get supplemental insurance that covers lightning-throwing death machines. The Tesla coil is axed. It sits offstage during the performances, disassembled and inert in a paint closet. It's the loveliest, most frightening, and saddest machine I have ever seen.

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