at the San Diego Repertory Theatre
KPBS AIRDATE: APRIL 14, 2000
Fasten your seatbelts. Spaceship Earth is on the launchpad. In a dizzying display of ideas, “The History (and Mystery) of the Universe” catapults us all into orbit. The one-man world premiere tour de force was conceived, created and directed by Douglas Jacobs, and it features the putty-faced, Gumby-like actor Ron Campbell, inhabiting the person of R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor, philosopher, architect, engineer, mathematician, poet and cosmologist.
Bucky, as he was called, was all about the Big Picture, and so is the show. It’s framed as a lecture, for which Bucky was notorious (although his could go on for 6-8 hours, and this one only lasts two). His thoughts and words are all over the map, and the play follows suit — it’s a non-linear jumble of ideas and timeframes, chronicling Bucky’s personal and professional life.
We learn, for example, that, in 1927, at the age of 32, he was on the verge of suicide. His first child had died, he had a newborn daughter, he was bankrupt, discredited and unemployed. Shivering at the edge of the river, he suddenly realized that his life wasn’t his to take; it belonged to the universe, and he devoted the next half-century to what he called his ‘experiment in individual initiative.’ He firmly believed that the actions of each create positive social change for all.
He was hellbent on discovering what it would take to “make the world work,” as he put it, to provide adequate food, energy and shelter for 100% of humanity. By all reports, he was charismatic, humorous, intellectually unfettered, a genius perhaps, or maybe a crank. But he was unequivocally inspirational. And in his brilliant performance, Campbell brings him to life again, jumping around the stage and demonstrating his geodesic dome, his dimaxion map, his polyhedron, his nostalgic longings, the history of his family and the history of the world. The high-falutin’ ideas are often backed by thoughtful images and illustrations, slides and overheads that help vivify the preponderance of words and lack of dramatic arc.
One could argue whether this is a true play, but then, neither is the eternally engaging solo piece, “Mark Twain Tonight.” Both are well-crafted, deceptively simple portraits of a man, and a personal sharing of insights, intelligence and wit. “History/Mystery” is also a science lesson, a social treatise and a call to arms. You may not agree with everything Bucky said. You may think he’s a cantankerous old coot. But he was a man who thought young, who thought Big, who made other people think. And these days in the theater, that kind of stimulation doesn’t come along every day.
Douglas Jacobs has done us all a great service. His textual choices encompass an impressive range of topics, shrewdly culled from Fuller’s vast array of writings. His technical team has worked wonders, with grace and simplicity. And his deft direction capitalizes on the immense talent of his star. Campbell is nothing short of breath-stopping. He flits, he sails, he soars, his every move and gesture a graceful dance. Unlike his usual broad-brush physical comedy, here he’s controlled, understated, slyly humorous and positively electrifying. He makes us want to understand, even when his words are so abstract, so arcane, so dense, that he seems to leave us all in the dust. He’s like some passionate professor, aching to motivate his students to think and to act.
Come to this ‘lecture’ as a willing student, filled with wonder, and you won’t go away politically or intellectually unchallenged; your brain, your mind, and maybe even your heart, will feel Fuller.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.