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Inventor, architect, philosopher, and cosmologist R. Buckminster Fuller comes alive

Wednesday, Jan 8 2003
This fascinating solo show about R. Buckminster Fuller starts with a long, awkward pause. Ron Campbell dresses like Fuller in middle age, wearing a banker's suit and horn-rimmed glasses. He stands next to a desk cluttered with icosahedron-shaped Tinkertoys and stares at the audience. He checks his pocket watch. He checks a wristwatch. The audience starts to laugh. Then he walks to center stage and drops a coin. "It always does that," he says. The coin always drops, toward the center of the Earth. "Nature never stops to calculate before behaving in the most economical manner." Scientists do, but nature doesn't.

It's a direct introduction to Fuller, whose long career as an inventor, architect, engineer, philosopher, and cosmologist focused on figuring out nature's plan. Campbell has been dropping coins in the middle of the stage for almost three years, ever since R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe was developed in San Diego in 2000 and became a long-running hit at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre in San Francisco later the same year. Since then it has traveled to Chicago and Seattle, and now has brought the show back for an extended run at the newly reopened Project Artaud Theater.

Fuller was a utopian visionary who tried to design things the way God designs them. He thought of the triangle as a cosmic building block, the structure even molecules are made of. (His famous geodesic domes are essentially webs of triangles.) Fuller wanted to be as efficient as nature itself in order to solve problems like hunger and poverty. His mind ranged from bubbles in sea foam to a definition of the soul, from nuclear physics to speculations on how to save "Spaceship Earth" from piratical rape by capitalists. He became a cult figure because of his marathon lectures on these topics, and this production takes the form of a typical Fuller talk, outfitted with geometric models, a chalkboard, and an overhead projector.

Campbell captures the great man's nebbishy, half-embarrassed manner, his stiff waddle, and his rushes of enthusiasm. He also captures some of his underlying sadness. Fuller got a late start as a scientist: He was kicked out of Harvard (twice), failed at business, and watched his 4-year-old daughter die in his arms before turning to a life of the mind. He considered suicide in 1927, but as he stood on the edge of Lake Michigan, wondering whether to wade in, Fuller realized that he'd spent most of his life thinking according to rules laid down by other people. "You do not belong to you," Campbell says in the show. "You do not have the right to do away with you. ... 1927, age 32, I resolved to do my own thinking." And he walked away from the lake.

The drama of Campbell's performance depends on this epiphany, and when I saw the play in 2000 it seemed to have more power than it does in this current production. Campbell was newer to the role then; I think he was more intense. Now he performs with the pacing and stride of a long-distance runner. He hints at emotion rather than dredging it up, and the show as a whole feels more like a lecture. D.W. Jacobs' script has evolved in the past 2 1/2 years; material from Fuller's books and talks has been swapped in and out, and if anything the show is longer, not tighter.

The play still hasn't fulfilled its original promise, though: It doesn't tell a clear, dramatic story. The brilliance of Jacobs' play was the way it wove beautiful ideas with biography, the way Fuller himself did, onstage. The form is perfect; no one but Fuller could be written this way. But the playwright's job, on top of mimicry, is to find a clear dramatic arc, and History doesn't find it. We learn about Fuller's struggles as a young man but not as a wise elder. We know he got a little kooky in his old age, but we don't know what he worried about (aside from the fate of the world). There's no suspense or drama. History is not a comedy or tragedy so much as a reproduction of Fuller for people who never got to see him, or have missed him since he died in 1983.

Still, it was Fuller's ideas that mattered. The show is stuffed with ideas, and Campbell enlivens them well. "Fire," Fuller says in the show, "is the sun unwinding from the tree," and you might call Campbell's performance a thread of smoke still unwinding from Bucky's burnt-out log.


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