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San Diego REP Brings Back Play About R. Buckminster Fuller

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

"The '60s was so chaotic and troubling, and here’s like your grandfather saying, 'It’s ok, we can fix this,'" playwright D.W. Jacobs says about the architect, systems engineer and inventor.

R. Buckminster Fuller is the great visionary of the 20th century most people don’t know about.

Photo caption:

A portrait of architect, inventor, and designer R. Buckminster Fuller.

Playwright D.W. Jacobs, who penned the one-man play "R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe" currently on stage at San Diego REPertory Theatre, didn't know who he was either.

When Jacobs was in college in the 1960s, he got a call from his brother. "He said you got to come and listen to this guy talk," Jacobs said. "I said, 'What does he talk about?' and my brother said, 'Well, he talks about everything.'"

That’s no exaggeration. Bucky, as he was known, was an architect, systems engineer, designer, inventor and poet. He talked about physics, the environment, housing, design, commerce, transportation — the list goes on.

"I went in the afternoon. (Fuller) was talking," Jacobs said. "I went to a class and came back and he was still talking. I went to dinner and came back and he was still talking." This went on all day, every day, for two weeks.

Bucky was probably best known as the architect who popularized the geodesic dome.

Photo caption:

A portrait of R. Buckminster Fuller with a geodesic dome.

He was also an inventor. In 1933, he invented a car shaped like a blimp. He believed the design would make it easy to fly. To ensure all people had housing, he imagined underwater settlements and homes delivered by zeppelins to remote places. But he also had more practical solutions. He was an optimist who believed the proper use of resources could change the world.

"It was a real tonic," Jacobs said. "The '60s was so chaotic and troubling, and here’s like your grandfather saying, 'It’s ok, we can fix this.'"

Jacobs would go on to help found San Diego REP, a professional theater known for plays focusing on social justice, with current artistic director Sam Woodhouse. He never forgot Bucky’s ideas. Jacobs spent five years researching Bucky's life and reading his many books. Sixteen years ago, he staged a one-man show about him at the REP. It was a hit. Now, the downtown theater has brought it back for its 40th anniversary season.

Photo by Kevin Berne

Ron Campbell on stage at San Diego REP playing R. Buckminster Fuller.

"I didn’t expect the broad appeal that the play would have," Jacobs said. "I knew there would be a niche market, but it’s not a play for intellectuals. It’s a play for anybody who is worried about their life and the world around them."

Ron Campbell, who played Bucky back in 2000, is reprising the role. He’s played this role close to 600 times.

"It’s kind of like playing King Lear, but it’s also a little like Iago. He touches on almost every archetype, which is why I keep coming back to this role. It's such a great role," he said.

The play revisits various stages of Bucky's life, from his childhood to the more dramatic moments. "I’ve played some great roles in my life, but not many have had their child die in their arms," Campbell said.

Campbell hasn’t played Bucky for six years. He’s been traveling the world as a clown with Cirque de Soleil. "I was with Cirque de Soleil making an idiot out of myself and now I’m back playing Bucky and making a genius out of myself," Campbell said.

He says the switch from clown to Bucky is not the role reversal one might expect. "Our clowns are also our truth speakers, 'our brief abstract chroniclers of the time,' as Shakespeare put it," Campbell explained. "And that’s exactly what Bucky was."

"He was just as open, naked and vulnerable as the most gifted clown."

Jacobs and Campbell looked to silent film comedians to achieve Bucky’s physical persona on stage. "We talked a lot about the body language of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and the silent comedy comedians, who were very erect and birdlike and had this open-hearted readiness to tackle the biggest problems," Jacobs said.

Photo caption:

Silent comedian Buster Keaton and actress Virginia Fox in a still from the 1922 film "The Electric House."

Jacobs sees the character of Bucky as part entertainer, part Old Testament prophet.

"I grew to believe that Bucky was the great testifier of the 20th century," Jacobs said. "So the play is based on that, the idea of telling the truth about our past, present and future."

In this devolved political climate, a brilliant grandfather type optimistically focusing on the world’s problems, sounds like a great night at the theater to me.

R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE" runs through April 10 at San Diego RERertory Theatre.

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