R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe

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Editorial Review

Theater review: 'R. Buckminster Fuller' at Arena Stage, reviewed by Peter Marks

By Peter Marks
Monday, June 7, 2010

Have you ever been cornered by the most brilliant person in a room for a lot longer than you wanted? Someone who, finally coming up for air, gives you the opening to blurt out, "Oh, gosh, look at the time!" as you make a beeline for the coat room? If so, you'll have some idea of the itchy impulses stirred by Arena Stage's talky treatise of a play, "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe."

The wordy title hangs aptly over D.W. Jacobs's long-winded performance piece, which takes the shape of an extended discourse by an actor playing Fuller, the late eccentric 20th-century visionary. The actor is the sturdy Rick Foucheux. He has the unenviable job of memorizing nearly 2 1/2 hours of Fuller's ruminations, opinions and theories and spewing them back in this, the last show in Arena's temporary space in Crystal City.

In bow tie and three-piece suit, Foucheux's Fuller gases on and on about what's best for all of us on spaceship Earth, while he fails to deduce what would be best for him: an editor. There's no questioning the intellectual gifts of Jacobs's subject, an unorthodox thinker most famous for his design of the geodesic dome, a man so advanced in cerebration he apparently even piqued the curiosity of Albert Einstein.

Some way might have been found to give more fully compelling form to his cautionary notions, but as written and directed by Jacobs, "The History (and Mystery) of the Universe" is tantamount to a display case for a gigantic brain. We hear gobs about Malthus and "vector equilibrium" and "the coordinate system used by nature." And Jacobs does find some imaginative ways -- with the help of his set and projection designers, David Lee Cuthbert and Jim Findlay -- to provide some of Fuller's personal biography and illustrate the concepts that fascinated him.

What's not supplied, however, is an overarching rationale for our being asked to listen to Fuller at this length: We're never given an essential ingredient of this narrow kind of theater, an opportunity to feel for the man, to understand what makes him tick (even though he does wear a watch on each wrist). Aloof and adrift in his own brilliance, Fuller can talk about the wonders of human potential but not interest us very much in his own story.

"I'm the opposite of a reformer; I'm a 'newformer,' " Fuller says at one point, and yes, he brims with proposals for radical rethinks of the way we live. Many of his brainstorms revolve around his belief that the triangle is nature's most perfect geometric shape, though precisely why it's imperative that humankind live in houses that extensively incorporate it remains an elusive facet of the discussion.

Foucheux is as amiable a guide as you might want for such an excursion, even if the portrayal doesn't bring out all that many vivid colors. Students of Fuller's theories will no doubt revel in the effort to theatricalize them. For most others, however, the evening will come across as a kind of cosmic equivalent of the old "Watch Mr. Wizard" TV show. And in this case, not even the wizard is entirely sure what he's doing here.

"I don't know why I've been invited to speak to people as ignorant as you," he declares. For long stretches, we're forced to wonder, too.

Written and directed by D.W. Jacobs. Sets and lighting, David Lee Cuthbert; costume, Darla Cash; composer and sound designer, Luis Perez. About 2 hours 20 minutes.