note: entire contents copyright 2010 by Sheila Barth
One truism in the American Repertory Theater’s (A.R.T.’s) one-man, two-hour production of D.W. Jacobs’ “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” is beloved Boston star Thomas Derrah is an outstanding performer whose every word, gesture and expression are commanding.
Derrah, as the indefatigable Fuller, sits in a rocking chair, reflecting --- then, like Fuller’s quick-thinking, rapidly-changing mind, bounces around, jumping, prancing, running to a chalkboard, up and down the aisles, with catchy enthusiasm.
When the audience delivered three curtain calls last Wednesday night, it was for Derrah’s flawless portrayal not necessarily for D.W. Jacobs’ play, which at times resembles a scientific lecture more than a fireside reminiscent chat. When Derrah plunges into a discourse about tetrahedrons, icosahedrons, octahedrons, etc. while demonstrating how series of simple triangles can produce unique three-dimensional shapes, several of us geometry drop-outs shuddered. To keep the audience’s attention, other discourses about protons, neutrons, powers of equilibrium, energy, synergy, and other theories are bolstered by Derrah’s singing ditties, addressing individuals, conducting a sing-along, and other theatrical ploys.
Overall, A.R.T.’s is enlightening, but I prefer to learn more about the man. Fuller was fascinating, a scientific forerunner with romantic and idealistic overtones. He dreamed the dreams of inventors and philosophers, trying to solve the world’s problems peacefully and efficiently.
Setting the mood, designer David Cuthbert’s circular stage with swirling blue floor looks like Earth from space, with metallic arches that perhaps are symbolic of Fuller’s most popular design - the geodesic dome. On the back wall, Jim Findlay’s large monitor projects Fuller’s family snapshots, family and historic movies of World War battles, scientific formulae, spilling over at times onto the walls and floors. Luis Perez’s sound compositions add other-worldliness to the production.
Jacobs, who attended one of Fuller’s lectures in California, and knew him personally, also directs this production. He captures all facets of the New England patrician’s versatility - a Renaissance man before the term was invented; an environmentalist before that term became popular; a writer-philosopher-mathematician-geometer-poet-architect-designer-inventor-futurist-and sustainability advocate who coined the term Spaceship Earth and called all humanity passengers/astronauts - keepers and masters of their own fate.
Fuller’s mantra of using less to get more is obvious while he explains his “pattern of integrity” as a way to improve human living conditions globally by co-existing with nature.
A romanticist and idealist, Fuller preferred peaceful methods and avoiding war to save the world. He enjoyed enormously reflecting on the universe. He was born in Milton on July 12, 1895, and was so cross-eyed, he says, he couldn’t see people until he was 4 1/2 years old and got corrective glasses. Suddenly, he could see the wonders around him, from smallest to largest detail. Fuller was born into a multigenerational family of Harvard graduates, but was kicked out of Harvard for partying - twice. He later returned to teach classes there.
He blithely relates highlights of his life and career while the monitor enhances his chat with family photos, most memorably of his adorable daughter, Alexandra, who died of complications from polio in 1923, at age 5, plunging him into a spiral of alcoholism and near-suicide. Fuller had served in the Navy, invented a winch to rescue downed aircraft at sea, attended officer training school, and continued gliding through life, thinking, inventing, writing. His second daughter, Allegra, born in 1927, added to his joy. (She appeared at a post-show talk at A.R.T. on Jan. 16).
He unleashes a comical tirade about Eisenhower’s new deal, (he calls it “no deal”), Wall Street, bankers, the CIA (he says they’re Capitalism’s Invisible Army), and how the American public paid $6 trillion to buy capability to destroy all of mankind, i.e., atomic knowledge.
An affable, chatty man, Fuller enchanted students and scholars, alike, including Albert Einstein, with whom he publicly disagreed in one of his books. He later enjoyed a meeting of the minds with Einstein, which he gleefully recalls in a pithy anecdote. Although the play ends in 1983, shortly before Fuller’s death, Jacobs ensures that Fuller’s wit, intelligence, and love for Spaceship Earth and its inhabitants leaves an enduring legacy. Fuller and his beloved wife, Ann, who died a few hours after him, are buried in Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge.
BOX INFO: Two-act, one-man, multimedia play, written and directed by D.W. Jacobs, appearing now through Feb. 5 at the American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Tickets begin at $25; student rush, $15; senior discount, $10 off regular price; groups, 10-more, $5 off. Call 617-547-8300 or visit the Box Office or www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org.