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

February 13, 2001

By Hedy Weiss, theater critic

The Mercury Theatre is a small and intimate place. But you can almost feel its roof levitating and its walls pushing outward to accommodate the farthest galaxies--and the largest human thoughts--as actor Ron Campbell leads us through "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe."

The tour de force one-man show, which had previous runs in San Diego and San Francisco and opened Sunday to a rapt local crowd, is fueled by an unusual mixture of personal passion and intellectual rigor.

R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe
Through March 25
At the Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport
Tickets, $25-$36. (773) 325-1700

Highly recommended
As much a spiritual and philosophical journey as a crash course in everything from physics and 20th century technology to economics, sociology, education, design and poetry, the show's emotional arc is so powerful that its scientific elements, which are handled with tremendous sleight of hand, become surprisingly accessible.

Above all, this is a vivid portrait of a polymorphous humanist, a technological visionary and an unrepentant American individualist--a man who lets us know the workings of his heart, as well as his brain, and whose mission in life was to search for the answer to that biggest of all questions: What is the purpose of humanity, and how do humans fit into the grand plan of nature, or, if you prefer, God? In other words: How should we live?

"Each of us is a complex pattern of integrity," Fuller tells us. And by figuring out ourselves, and taking our cues from nature, we will thrive.

The show, which draws on the mountain of lectures, articles, books and other writings that Fuller (1895-1983) left behind, has been shaped into a magnificent theatrical vehicle by writer-director D.W. Jacobs. A dense lacework of biographical data, and scientific, moral, political and psychological theories, it is framed as one of the galvanic lectures that Fuller was famous for giving. And rather than demanding intense listening, it seduces you into a receptive and ultimately deeply self-reflective state.

Campbell's fervent, funny, heart-wrenchingly poignant and impeccably detailed performance is driven by the quirky physicality of the one-man dynamo he embodies--a man whose thoughts fed on every discipline, whose conclusions often drew together disparate fields and whose imagination seemed to propel him through space every bit as much as his own feet. This also was a man who let his feelings, and his hard-won sense of confidence in his own intuition and gifts of observation and perception, lead the way.

On a hexagonal-shaped stage, designed by Annie Smart, that suggests a geometric form crucial to Fuller's thinking--and with the inventive use of lighting (by David Lee Cuthbart), music and sound (Luis Perez) and video (Dave Cannon)--Campbell dances his way through Fuller's ideas as much as he speaks them. The momentum of a bicycle ride, a car race, a sailing ship is made palpable. So are the discoveries that come with such locomotion.

Adapting "Bucky's" slightly nerdy but endearing persona--close-cropped haircut, old-fashioned suit (credit costume designer Darla Cash) and all-important thick glasses--Campbell brilliantly mixes energizing silences with infectious animation. And as befits Fuller's life--which was one long rebellion against specialization--he delves into everything from notions of scarcity to renewable resources, from the role of money and pirates in history, to the essential geometric forms key to his famous creation, the geodesic dome.

In the end, however, it is love that proves to be the most powerful force in the universe of R. Buckminster Fuller--love for a wife, children and mankind itself. Beyond all the labels that have affixed themselves to this fascinating man, "universal romantic" may be the most apt.

Inventing the future

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

By Jack Helbig
Daily Herald Correspondent
Feb 16, 2001

Mini-review: Easily the most intelligent and insightful show currently running in Chicago

Maybe you remember Buckminster Fuller. He was the guy who invented the geodesic dome and coined the phrase "spaceship earth."He had quite a following back in the '60s and early '70s, when he would speak about the future at seminars and on college campuses.

By all accounts, Bucky, as people called him, had an amazing presence. His ideas were powerful. He wrote an essay in the very early '60s about a world in which we all would communicate via small wireless phones. This at a time when phones still had dials.

Fuller himself was a riveting speaker, who could engage an audience for hours. His record was 42 hours straight, but in the 1930s, when he lived in Greenwich Village, friends told of times when he would hang out talking for three days straight.

It was only a matter of time before someone got the bright idea of building a solo show around the man. Lucky for us, that someone turned out to be L.A.-based writer and director D.W. Jacobs. A fan of Fuller's since 1968, Jacobs clearly understands Bucky's ideas backwards and forwards. More importantly, Jacobs understood the drama of Fuller's life, and spends much of the first act of this two-hour show recounting Bucky's sometimes quite unlucky life.

Born into a comfortable, educated New England family, Fuller spent most of his life out of sync with his times. He flunked out of Harvard - twice - because he found the classes boring and because he couldn't fit into the snobby social scene. His first foray into business came in the early '20s, selling a new kind of brick invented by his father-in-law. It ended in disaster. The company was bought out and Fuller and his father-in-law were tossed out on their ears.

After that experience, Fuller turned his attention full time to doing exactly what he loved doing: inventing the future. In the '20s he designed plans for prefab homes. Architects and construction workers, alike, were horrified. In the '30s, he created an aerodynamic car, the Dymaxion, which ran on three wheels. That car might have been a success if only it hadn't been involved in an automobile accident - not Bucky's fault - that left the occupants of the other car dead. Then, in the late '40s, early '50s, Fuller turned his attention to the inventions we know him for: the various kinds of geodesic domes. Jacobs recounts these misfortunes and triumphs without pity or unnecessary melodrama.

Even if you have heard these stories before - and every true Fuller aficionado has heard some of them - you will still be drawn in. Especially moving are the scenes when Jacob's show discusses 1927, the terrible, amazing year Fuller failed in business, considered suicide, found his calling, and began a two-year period of more or less complete silence in which he tried to figure out exactly what he considered to be true in the world.

Jacobs is lucky to have found an actor as capable as Ron Campbell to play Fuller. Performing in Fuller's trademark dark suit and tie, wearing the same square glasses Fuller preferred, Campbell seems every inch the inspired, quirky Fuller. When he gets excited, Campbell shakes the way Fuller shook, the ideas tumbling out of his mouth at a speed that cannot help but excite the audience. Jacobs intentionally structured the show to follow Fuller's own eccentric speaking style. Fuller never used notes and never carefully structured his presentations. Instead, he would just begin talking and eventually his talks would wander into interesting territory. This was part of made Fuller fascinating in the '60s. You never really knew what he was going to say. Even if you read the essays Fuller distilled from his talks ("Education Automation," "Utopia or Oblivion," "Critical Path"), you will see they have the same wandering, discursive style. His talks feel less like lectures and more like talk-filled walks in the woods.

But we are less tolerant of digression today. We like our info packaged neatly, with clear bullet points and lots of visual aids. Jacobs has addressed some of this. Behind Campbell's performance, Jacobs flashes a series of illustrations: photos of Fuller's family, drawings from Fuller's sketchbooks, films of his inventions in action. Still, there will be some who find Fuller's disjointed way of speaking disconcerting. That will be their loss. "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe" is easily the most intelligent, most insightful and interesting show currently running in Chicago.

Location: The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago
Times: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday; 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday through March 25
Parking: Some parking on the street; paid lot available
Tickets: $29.50 to $36.50 Box office: (773) 325-1700