R. Buckminster Fuller (Thomas Derrah) runs through the audience and drops himself into a large chair positioned at the back of the Loeb Mainstage. After a few energetic waves to the audience, he pulls a coin out of his pocket. Eagerly observing the coin, Derrah turns and looks at the audience before flicking it into the air and watching it drop to the floor. Repeating this surprisingly engaging act two more times, the excitable scientist jumps up and declares, “It always does that.”
Derrah’s enthusiasm is perhaps the most engaging quality of the American Repertory Theater’s production of “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe.” Running in the Loeb Drama Center Mainstage until February 5th, the show profiles the life and works of the multi-talented genius R. Buckminster Fuller. Unfortunately, the one-man show begins to feel redundant as it drags into its second hour. A script that should have been condensed and sharpened, along with questionable uses of projections and background effects prevent the A.R.T.’s latest production from doing justice to Derrah’s commendable performance.
Written and directed by D.W. Jacobs, “Buckminster Fuller” unwittingly illustrates why concision is sometimes the best route to take, especially in a one-man production. Even though Derrah portrays Fuller’s eccentric genius with a great passion, some parts of the performance seem to drag. Taking the script directly from Fuller’s personal journal and writings means that the show rarely builds any dramatic tension, resulting in a second act that stagnates rather than propels.
Several complex physics concepts are integrated into the show. It is a risky artistic decision, but also stands as the surprisingly positive outcome of having drawn the script from Fuller’s writing. Derrah brings a giant demonstration of Fuller’s geodesic dome on stage and plays around with various triangular contraptions, making stiff choreographed movements intended to reflect the physical concepts he is describing. These scenes capture the beauty of shape and form, bringing Fuller’s complex ideas to life.
In this instance, a multimedia approach proves successful in illustrating Fuller’s works, but other attempts to mix unorthodox visuals into the show are less effective. One such point is when Derrah describes the ocean, the vastness of the great deep, and how it can relate to our lives. Video footage of a deep blue ocean is projected onto the massive circular screen behind the stage. Instead of adding an extra level to the show, or bringing out Fuller’s works in an innovative way, these projections distract from the main action on stage. Similarly the old-school projector, despite adding a nostalgic touch, never presents any relevant images to help understand the action. Although pictures of Buckminster’s children are adorable, it would be more useful to have some artistic interpretation or explanation of the in-depth theories that Derrah speeds through.
Fuller’s ramblings themselves, though, are surprisingly engaging. Both his scientific and philosophical musings as well as more personal reflections on his own childhood prove worthy—though perhaps over-extended—subjects. Discussing the discovery that he needed glasses as a child, Derrah vividly describes the world he saw when he was partially sighted and the world that appeared to him once he could see clearly. He takes his glasses on and off in a repeated motion, and a low toned ringing echoes round the theatre whenever they are removed, a subtle but emotive reflection on the power of sight and perception.
Unfortunately, for all its poignant moments, the show fails to sustain this engagement throughout. Even with such a strong performance from Derrah, the script renders the show a struggle at times. Derrah’s stage presence would have been a greater achievement if he were only on stage for an hour, instead of returning for a second act that adds little to the theatrical experience. “Buckminster Fuller” is an unfortunate case of leaving the audience anxious to escape near the end, rather than demanding more.