He stands before you, this odd man with the nerd glasses and the bow tie, and blinks and swallows. The house lights are still up, and he does not seem to know what to do about it. He is R. Buckminster Fuller, an American original. He is a genius, and he is a fool, and he dares you not to love him.
It is hard to do a one-man show (where’s the conflict? Who’s the bad guy?) and harder still when the subject is someone from the world of thought. Richard Buckminster Fuller (Rick Foucheux) was a man in love with ideas, especially his own, and in the space of two hours twenty minutes’ time on the Arena stage in Crystal City, he gives you an autobiography of passion. This passion, companioned as it is with joy and tragedy, is sufficient to serve as story, and at times intimates an epic.
Fuller, a brilliant designer with polemical gifts, gives a postgraduate lecture on the subject of Fuller, as crafted by playwright-director D.W. Jacobs and presented by the astonishing Foucheux. Brothers and sisters, I know you will find this hard to believe, and perhaps even to understand, but Rick Foucheux – already one of the best actors in the Washington area – has kicked his game up several notches. In an arc which began with his work as the title character in Folger’s Henry IV, Part One and which has culminated (so far) in this role, Foucheux has established himself as one of those rare actors who dissolves himself in his character when he steps on the stage. As Fuller, Foucheux speaks in the inventor’s nasal tones and broad New England accent, prowling around the stage as Fuller once did, with the same unexpected stops and surprised expressions, as though he was taking dictation from God. Foucheux has even gotten down the way Fuller breathed. If you don’t believe me, go see the show, and then the clip of the real Fuller below.
Maybe it’s not surprising that Fuller seemed to take dictation from God. He was a deeply religious man, who believed that God was real, present in the cosmos, and had concrete expectations of humankind. One day, Fuller, broke, suicidal, and drinking heavily, had a vision in which he was lifted off the ground, encased in a bubble, and instructed to tell the truth. From that point on, he preached his gospel with the vigor of a man who expected to be called to account for it.
Fuller’s most important discovery was one he made as a child: that the sides of a triangle naturally tend to rest on each other. Thus the triangle has more natural structural integrity than does the square, which, when upright, must be held together by joints or other adhesives. While the rest of the world was building structures based on squares and boxes, Fuller built the geodesic dome – an icosahedron (a polyhedron of twenty identical equilateral triangles, with five triangle faces meeting at each vertex) covered with a textile skin.
Fuller’s almost antic description of his discovery, and its uses and applications, is probably the best part of the show. He becomes playful as he describes his evolution from the simple triangle to the icosahedron, periodically wearing various structures as a hat or a necklace. He proudly proclaims the perfection of the icosahedron – “the same structure as the shell of a virus” (undoubtedly not the most effective marketing ploy he could have used.)
He brings this same animation to the description of his personal life, but it is tinged with melancholy. He is born to wealth but is nearly blind; only when he obtains the thick glasses he wore all his life did he understand that other people had eyes. He is a brilliant child but cannot understand geometry. He is booted out of Harvard – twice. He goes into business but eventually is forced into bankruptcy. He marries luckily, and well, to a woman he loves for the rest of his life but their first child is stricken with spinal meningitis and, later, infantile paralysis, and dies before her fifth birthday. As he speaks, home movies of doomed Alexandra play against a screen in the background (scenic and lighting designer David Lee Cuthbert does heroic work to further enliven the presentation).
We also see home movies of another one of his inventions, the Dymaxion car – a twenty-foot behemoth which could carry eleven adults and yet was infinitely maneuverable and got thirty miles to the gallon. It never won enough investors to go into production.
This leads us to the third and least satisfactory portion of the show: the expression of Fuller’s philosophical and political views. Fuller believed, sweetly but naively, that since we had the technology necessary to feed every human being in the world, war (not to mention starvation) should be a thing of the past. His viewpoint made him a counterculture hero in the 60s, but he failed to understand that man is an infinitely acquisitive beast, and is not about to be satisfied with mere caloric sufficiency.
His inability to get the rest of the world to share his viewpoint appeared to frustrate him immoderately, and he became a difficult person. Perhaps goaded by his own business failures, he heaps scorn on designers who expect to make money from their work, accusing them of abandoning the improvement of humanity in favor of the search for the almighty dollar.
He forgets, it appears, that those improvements which don’t attract investments are generally those improvements which humanity would like to take a pass on. (The geodesic domes tended to leak in heavy weather, and the Dymaxion cars sometimes tipped over once past 50 mph.) At another point he blandly observes, “I don’t know why I’m speaking to a group of people as ignorant as you.” He does not mean it as an insult; it is a real expression of puzzlement. Unless you understand, and buy into, the tenets of his worldview, there is no point in him talking to you. He nonetheless gives us an interminable, and incomprehensible, lecture on the origins of capitalism in the pirate trade, and a brief summary of why capitalism and Marxism are both wrong, and Buckyism is right. While no on-stage biography of Fuller can omit his social views, Jacobs could profitably trim these passages, and make the presentation measurably livelier by so doing.
If Buckminster Fuller is remembered for nothing else, he will be remembered for a singular metaphor: this planet is “Spaceship Earth”. While Fuller meant to use the metaphor primarily to underscore the need for cooperation in a fragile ecosphere, it also conjures up the soaring possibilities of an infinite Universe, which we have just begun to explore. To help us see this, Fuller has us stand, arms outstretched, and reorient ourselves to the cosmos. There is no up and down, he explains, only in (to the spaceship) and out. It is the closest we come to hearing God’s dictation in his head.
It is appropriate that the show, which begins with a story of Fuller overcoming a fearsome disability, ends with him confessing a fear for his own future. His beloved wife of sixty-six years, he says, is gravely ill. In fact, she is dying. “Are we supposed to die at the same time?” he asks, and for once, this brash genius, who has shown nothing but certainty throughout his lecture, seems confused and querulous.
Jacobs could not possibly have shown what actually happened, but here it is: on July 1, 1983, Bucky Fuller, 87, visited his wife Anne, who was lying comatose in a Los Angeles hospital. She was in the last stage of her cancer. He took her hand and gazed at her. Suddenly he stood up and shouted “she squeezed my hand!” It was his last discovery on this planet; he keeled over immediately with a heart attack, and was dead within the hour. Anne died thirty-six hours later…in time, perhaps, to catch Spaceship Bucky, headed out toward the Universe.
R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe
Written and directed by D.W. Jacobs
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER: THE HISTORY (AND MYSTERY) OF THE UNIVERSE