R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe is a love note to people who like to think.
It’s a distinction that feels vague. After all, doesn’t every person like to think? But there is definitely a variety of person who avoids independent thinking whenever possible and a full-length, one-man show dealing exclusively with the life of the genius responsible for the geodesic dome is a pretty reliable method for ferreting them out.
Combining a chronological narrative of the life of Fuller (affectionately referred to as “Bucky” throughout the play) with elements of his lectures, playwright D.W. Jacobs has assumed the difficult task of condensing one man’s life into an accessible couple of hours.
Furthering the difficulty of this transmission is the fact that Fuller’s life has to be relatable to a general audience with no background in the complicated thinking that led Fuller to become the second president of MENSA. A Herculean task indeed. But one which Jacobs takes on with a joy and enthusiasm that is evident in the final product.
Fuller, who documented his life every 15 minutes from 1915-83 in what he termed the Dymaxion Chronofile, and lived to be 87, certainly had stories to draw upon. There are moments at which the audience finds themselves part of a love story as Bucky details his relationship with his wife.
At other times, it is the story of an underdog whose compromised vision until age 4 is credited with producing a unique approach to the world at large. Other times still, the audience is situated in a lecture hall learning about Eisenhower and the CIA.
All the while, from transition to transition, Doug Tompos as Fuller successfully navigates these shifts. He presents the genius as almost cuddly. His ideas, though overpowering in their breadth and width, are accessible because the man having those ideas seems almost cuddly.
And, though it is condescending to infantilize one of the greatest thinkers that the modern world has known, there is the desire nonetheless to slip this man into your pocket and carry him around with you.
Throughout the play Tompos’ Fuller is called upon to pause, think out loud, move the narrative abruptly to another thought, repeat a revised Lord’s Prayer and busily work through a circular conversation, all of which are accomplished without ever seeming doddering.
Instead, he seems to be harnessing an unfeasible amount of thought and distilling it to the audience in ways that both he and the audience can successfully swallow.
Videos of Fuller during his life are easily found online, a fact which either eased or complicated Tompos’ preparation for this role. Having watched them, it becomes apparent that Tompos has distilled the man in the same fashion that the man has distilled the information.
It is not a strict impression that is being performed. But in the movements there is a trace of the stoop, there are the fingertips pressed together, and there is a trace of the New England accent. There is something new as well: a level of theatricality that keeps the audience engaged and active. It is, in short, masterful.
Also, R. Buckminster Fuller isn’t simply an energetic meet-up of your local think tank. Many of Bucky’s concepts are drawn upon a long piece of butcher paper during the course of the show and projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.
In addition to enmeshing the audience in a complicated series of intellectual gymnastics, the on-the-spot renderings imbue the moment with liveliness. The screen is also used to project the words to a song, which the audience is then called upon to sing along with Bucky. If you’re part of a lively audience, the volume is surprising.
While Guys and Dolls continues it run through Nov. 15 on the Gerding’s main stage, Portland Center Stage presents R. Buckminster Fuller in the Ellen Bye Studio. It seems in many ways a manifestation of local attitudes about theater: A musical from the 1950s, albeit a classic, will continue running forever, while tucked in the theater’s bowels, an engaging, thought-provoking performance is hidden away.
And, in many ways, the team producing the show seems concerned that this play may not be quite right for its audiences. Perhaps all of this critical thinking will cause audience interest to wane. Like an anxious mother who needs to know that her baby’s brain is developing, projection and sound design work overtime, shaking their metaphorical rattles and cooing.
A constant barrage of images and sounds overwhelm the small theater, even while Bucky performs from inside a large tetrahedral in order to explain analytic geometry. Such instances leave the audience over stimulated.
However, the production needn’t be so concerned. For people who enjoy thinking, Bucky’s ideas will leave them energized and prepared to go forth and to change the world.
R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe
Portland Center Stage
Sun.-Thurs. evening and matinee
30 and under, student: $21.50
By: Alia Stearns
Issue date: 11/4/08 Section: Arts and Culture