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Bucky Explains 

Buckminster Fuller was brilliant, amusing, and kooky

Wednesday, Jul 26 2000
Buckminster Fuller was one of those East Coast-born intellectuals, like Joseph Campbell, who filled up on Asian religion, built a cultish following on the strength of his ideas, and wound up being vaguely associated with California. He made his living as a Utopian visionary and gave marathon speeches on science and God that were two parts college lecture and one part self-help symposium. Fuller died in 1983, but his ghost is stalking around California again in the person of Ron Campbell, who plays the nebbishy thinker in a one-man lecture-performance affiliated with the Buckminster Fuller Institute of Sebastopol.

I say "affiliated" because another group -- Foghouse -- is actually producing the show, but people from the Fuller Institute hang around like Deadheads at a Phil Lesh concert. They mingle in tweeds and beards, Say A Few Words at show's end, and have exhibits in the Lorraine Hansberry lobby. The Fuller cult failed to die with Fuller, it seems, and his cultists would make Campbell's performance feel like a Spaceship Earth convention rather than a work of theater if the performance weren't so fascinating.

"Spaceship Earth" was Bucky's coinage. He would say to people who wondered how it might feel to travel on a spaceship, "You tell me. How does it feel?" Earth, he said, is the most efficient spaceship so far invented or discovered. His long career as an architect, engineer, philosopher, cosmologist, etc., focused on figuring out nature's plan; these ruminations led him to the triangle as a cosmic building block, and the polyhedron as the sturdiest structure. (Witness carbon molecules, as well as Bucky's famous geodesic domes.) Fuller also speculated on how to save the planet from total environmental destruction and how to end poverty and solve the global energy crisis. He was religious but not denominational, politi-cal without being partisan, brilliant, amusing, and kooky.

Ron Campbell plays Fuller at a young but indeterminate age, looking trim and nerdish in a suit and horn-rimmed glasses. The stage resembles both a lecture stage, with an overhead projector and blackboard with doodles, and Bucky's living room, with a cozy chair and lamp. Bucky moves restlessly between his props and the audience, giving the story of his life in lecture form. D.W. Jacobs' script is an act of skillful knitwork involving whole passages from Fuller's interviews, lectures, and books. Campbell captures the quirks and affectations of his subject along with a full range of shaded feeling; sometimes he careens off into sentimentality but in the most important bits he's remarkably solid and true. Bucky's epiphany on the shore of Lake Michigan, pondering suicide with the lights of Chicago behind him, is maybe the best moment of the show, and it needs to be. His failures as a businessman, Harvard student, and husband convinced Fuller at 32 that his mind was not his own, and set him on a course of independent thinking that was both odd and uniquely American.

The first act promises something like a staged Bildungsroman, a confluence of ideas and biography rising to a high revelation, but the second act loses tension, and veers into weird fugues of misterioso poetry and New Age music. Bucky, I'm afraid, was a terrible poet. In his later years he did tend to say things like, "Every night before going to sleep, I consider what I really am -- an average human being regarding which extraordinary phenomenon we don't as yet know much about." (Full stop.) The disco-lit fugues of language in the second act have the same grasping inconclusiveness, and instead of rising to a strong climax we get Bucky exhorting the troops with visions of an apocalyptic choice -- "Utopia or oblivion!" Then the Beatles come on, singing "Fool on the Hill."

But Jacobs' script also deals with intriguing ideas, like the historical links between the American Colonies and the British East India Co., or the 1980s savings and loan scandal. (Not many people realize even now that the S&L collapse was connected to a scheme to fund the CIA. I'm impressed that Fuller knew it so early.) Fuller compares a soul to a loose knot sliding along manila, cotton, and nylon ropes: The knot, he says, has "pattern integrity," although its material changes. He also says (and this makes the show current), "The history of the universe is a process of ephemeralization," meaning: Humans learn to do more with less. The rise of e-mail would have killed him with joy.

Like Joseph Campbell, Fuller became a guru by insisting that genius and "Godhead" reside in every human heart. This kind of stuff plays well in California. "He always felt California represented the cresting wave of human evolutionary patterns," said Bucky's daughter Allegra, when Stanford acquired her father's archives last year. The warm feeling was mutual. This current Bucky-incarnation is a sort of West Coast tribute to Fuller by his disciples, with a road-show atmosphere lent by various attendant science forums and symposia; but it's also, God be praised, a solid piece of theater.


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