The man who invented, or at least patented, the "geodesic dome," those semi-spheres so strong they don’t need internal pillars no matter how big they are, and who commented on a host of topics of science, technology and philosophy, is brought back to life by one of our area’s finest actors in "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe."
Arena Stage, the D.C.-based company that has been performing in the theatre in the underground passages of Crystal City while its home campus undergoes massive renovation, presents the play based on Fuller’s lectures with Rick Foucheux as Fuller through July 4. It is a fascinating, often funny and highly entertaining show. At least it is for the first hour and a half. By the time it stretches past the two-hour mark, it has begun to overstay its welcome except for those most seriously wrapped up in the lessons Fuller had to offer.
"Bucky" Fuller was apparently a fascinating fellow, a bit off-beat and peculiar, but capable of making even highly technical scientific principals not only understandable but interesting and entertaining. From throwing a coin in the air to demonstrate the unchanging nature of the physics of gravity to demolishing the Malthusian theory that population growth will always exceed the growth of the food supply with the dismissive "Malthus never heard of refrigeration," Fuller could get his points across in style.
Not simply an entertaining version of early television’s "Mr. Wizard," Fuller delved into philosophy and was an early proponent of what has become known as the environmental movement. His oft-pronounced solution to most of the world’s problems was "do more with less." It wasn’t just an empty slogan. He had concrete examples of how science and the technology it enables had matured to the point where it was, in fact, possible to care for all the world’s population without the necessity of finding ways to allocate scarcity.
As fascinating as Fuller’s ideas or his presentations might have been, however, it helps that we have Foucheux as the actor performing this piece. He has played many a fascinating character on local stages. He was Pontius Pilot in "Jesus Christ Superstar," the second President Bush in "Stuff Happens" and Sen. Stephen Douglass in the Lincoln-Douglass Debates show "Rivalry." He earned the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor twice, most recently for the conflicted accountant in "Take Me Out." Two years ago he took this same stage in a very different persona, the terminally depressed Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s "Death of a Salesman."
Foucheux has a way of disappearing into his characters that makes you quickly forget you are watching Foucheux and believe you are watching George W. Bush, Pontius Pilot, Stephen Douglass or R. Buckminster Fuller. It is a talent that isn’t based on any lack of personality of his own. Indeed, Mr. Foucheux is a quite identifiable and memorable individual. But he turns that very identifiability to his advantage, making some of his own quirks or mannerisms blend with those he conjures up for his character. This writer never actually saw Fuller in person and I’ve only seen videos of some of his lectures. But having seen Foucheux’s Fuller I feel I know the man on a level quite a bit deeper than just the things he says during this particular show.
The script should receive a good deal of the credit for this as well. D. W. Jacobs, the co-founder of San Diego Rep in California who did see Fuller speak, has written a solo-performance play that incorporates a great many of Fuller’s best lines. But, Jacobs also directs this production, and therein may lie one of its problems. For when one person is both the playwright and the director, there isn’t anyone around with the task of saying "no." Had Jacobs the author had a director telling him that things were getting too drawn out, he might have taken a judicious scalpel to his script and made it much better by making it much shorter.
The production does benefit from a set design that is as interesting as a look inside Fuller’s mind. It features a platform that could almost be the "transporter room" from television’s "Star Trek." There is a side structure with a desk and blackboard that could be a college classroom and an old wind-up phonograph on the other side. In front of it all is a simple, old fashioned overhead projector that "Fuller" uses to illustrate some of his points. Add a series of sound effects and music by Louis Perez and projections with just the right touch of Fullerian whimsey by Jim Findlay and you have a production that fills the evening with interesting material even it it does over do it a bit.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.