A visionary’s world

One-man show at the ART explores the life and genius of R. Buckminster Fuller

Whether manipulating geometric shapes or moving about the stage, Thomas Derrah conveys R. Buckminster Fuller’s excitement in the workings of the universe. Whether manipulating geometric shapes or moving about the stage, Thomas Derrah conveys R. Buckminster Fuller’s excitement in the workings of the universe. (Marcus Stern)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / January 21, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — The last time Thomas Derrah appeared in an American Repertory Theater production, in the September “Cabaret’’ that starred Amanda Palmer, he wore a dress to play Fraulein Schneider, the landlady of Sally Bowles.

In “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,’’ Derrah’s attire is nothing special — a simple black suit and bow tie — but his performance sure is.

Derrah so persuasively and entertainingly channels the eccentric polymath of the title that this one-man show at the ART, written and directed by D.W. Jacobs, comes across as a mind-stretching marriage of “The Last Lecture’’ and “Mark Twain Tonight!’’

Whether he is simply sitting in a high-backed chair, standing at a table and manipulating geometric shapes to illustrate a point, or bounding about set designer David Lee Cuthbert’s circular, cobalt-blue platform — which, fittingly enough, suggests a swirling cosmos — Derrah conveys Fuller’s perpetual excitement in the workings of the universe and his own remarkable mind.

The man nicknamed Bucky was an iconoclastic scientist, architect, engineer, inventor, social theorist, environmentalist, and futurist from whom ideas — a geodesic dome, a three-wheeled car, a modular home that could be mass-produced and airlifted anywhere — burst forth in wild profusion for a good chunk of the 20th century.

He sought not just new ways of looking at the world, but also to persuade the world to take a big-picture look at itself, in particular its propensity for war, waste, and a misallocation of resources that leads to widespread hunger.

Derrah’s Bucky blends a childlike sense of discovery with a didact’s need to instruct and an aphorist’s knack for making his points in a pithy phrase, viz.: “You have to decide at the outset whether you are trying to make money or trying to make sense, as they are mutually exclusive’’; “All ideologies range somewhere between the Great Pirates and the Marxists, between the fire and the frying pan’’ or “Muscle is nothing; mind is everything. But muscle is still in control of human affairs.’’

This is not to say, however, that every moment of “R. Buckminster Fuller’’ is scintillating. At one point, Bucky declares: “But you have to saturate yourself with information. Saturate!’’, and audiences are likely to feel over-saturated with information at times, especially when Bucky goes into eye-glazing detail about tetrahedrons and octahedrons and icosahedrons, or when he emits such lines as “Love synergetically integrates metaphysical radiation and physical gravity, whose interpulsative, intercomplentary oppositeness regenerates life.’’

I think he means that love makes the world go ’round, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it.

But overall, “R. Buckminster Fuller’’ feels fluid rather than static. Jacobs the director does a favor to Jacobs the writer with some inventive staging that brings the life of the mind to life. There’s a visual allure to the ART production, thanks to Cuthbert, whose set and lighting design create an atmosphere that is cool without being chilly, and to video designer Jim Findlay, who projects well-chosen images (wind turbines, churning waves, photos of Fuller as a young man, footage of his inventions) onto a rear screen.

The focus, though, remains on Derrah, who finds the human being inside the formidable egghead as he veers from Fuller’s life story to an explication of his ideas and back again. He describes how he was admitted to Harvard, but was kicked out after he skipped his midyear exams to go to New York to see a show featuring an actress with whom he was smitten. “I took the whole chorus out to dinner and spent my second year’s allowance in one shot,’’ Bucky says, without a trace of regret.

He recounts how his family then sent him to work as an apprentice millwright in a cousin’s cotton mill in Quebec, and he makes it sound like a more valuable education than the one he got at the little college on the Charles. He went back to Harvard eventually, but was expelled again. “I hated memorizing things,’’ is all Bucky says by way of explanation.

Derrah takes us through the death of Fuller’s first child, his struggles with drinking, the time he contemplated suicide on the shore of Lake Michigan.

But more typical of the buoyant spirit that suffuses “R. Buckminster Fuller’’ is the wondering excitement in Derrah’s voice as he describes Bucky’s time in the US Navy during World War I. It was then that Bucky first saw the world-transforming possibilities of technology — a quest that would consume his life.

“We were accelerating,’’ he says. “A new world was coming in. We were going from track to trackless, from wire to wireless, from visible to invisible. . . . to ephemeralization. Ever doing more and more with less and less. Ephemeralization.’’ Adds the man who would later envision floating cities, and much more: “It was as if only the impossible happened.’’

Reputedly, there was a running joke among audiences who heard Fuller lecture: “It was great! What did he say?’’ You may feel similar sentiments after you leave the American Repertory Theater. But even if you’re scratching your head, chances are you’ll be glad you heard him say it.

Don Aucoin can be reached at

R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe

Directed by D.W. Jacobs. Written by Jacobs, from the life, work, and writings of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Sets and lights, David Lee Cuthbert. Costumes, Darla Cash. Video design, Jim Findlay. Composer and sound design, Luis Perez.

At: American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge. Through Feb. 5. Tickets $25-$65, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertory