Bucky's Back

by Alicia Anstead

Buckminster Fuller may have been thrown out of Harvard twice, but he's exactly the type of thinker Harvard finds fascinating years later. (Indeed, Fuller returned to Harvard eventually to teach.) Fuller was allergic to formalized classrooms, but D. W. Jacobs' play R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe, which runs through Feb. 5 at American Repertory Theater, has the feel of a lecture, albeit one in which the sole person onstage dances, makes triangles out of tooth picks and marshmallows, and takes an intermission because he has to pee.

"I am not a thing — a noun," Fuller wrote. "I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe."

Thomas Derrah, who is well known to longtime A.R.T. audiences, verbally commands the stage for the two-plus hours of monologuing with an accent that's a little bit Milton, Mass., and a little bit Bear Island, Maine. He is a charming and cheerful Fuller, even when the topic is the death of Fuller's first daughter or his grapple with suicide on the shores of Lake Michigan. In the end, you will surely wish you could have had dinner with Fuller (who died in 1983 just shy of his 88th birthday). As Boston Globe writer Laura Collins-Hughes points out, he may be best known as the father of the geodesic dome, but the lesson of Jacobs' work and Derrah's performance is truly about energy: how to conserve it, delight in it, sustain it and make it into art.

Fuller is the type of iconoclastic figure who attracts followers devoted to the free and joyous exploration of ideas from poetry to science, from children's observations to Einstein's explorations. Many such groupies have signed up for Bucky and Me, a series of post-show conversations with artists, scholars and scientists inspired by Fuller's work. The triangle may be one of the strongest forms on earth, but Fuller is a force -- an idea machine -- with which to be reckoned. The play moves at its own pace, but Fuller's rapidity of spirit and intellectual flamboyance is more than a model for a science project. It's an example of a life lived in service to verbs.

[Caption: Thomas Derrah as Buckminster Fuller through Feb. 5 at A.R.T. PHOTO BY MARCUS STERN.]