Theater review: Tom Key plays R. Buckminster Fuller, unabridged

Atlanta actor Tom Key has climbed what must surely be the Everest of stage literature.

In Theatrical Outfit’s one-man show, “R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe,” Key plays the Massachusetts-born architect/author/designer probably best known for inventing the geodesic dome. Directed by David de Vries in a two-act monologue that clocks in at a little over two hours, Key paints a portrait of a man who was psychologically complicated and wildly visionary in his thinking.

Twice kicked out of Harvard, Fuller (1895-1983) was scorned by the American architectural establishment and later endorsed by Einstein. He was a radical thinker plagued by doubts and insecurities as a young man; devastated by the death of his young daughter; and transformed by the triangle: the geometric form he declared to be the most stable of them all.

It’s a testament to the miracle of theater that Key can memorize so much information on topics spanning space, time, science, religion and the cosmos. So. Many. Words. But this doesn’t mean the material mesmerizes. The first act is soporific: a long, slow ride on a spiraling spaceship; the second act more spirited and entertaining: a bumpy ride on a bullet train.

Fuller’s thoughts are random, expansive, compelling, occasionally numbing. Sometimes the ideas are better than the delivery. Key is required to sing, engage the audience in a few participatory experiences and otherwise command your attention for what sometimes feels like an eternity. It’s an exceedingly difficult assignment, to be sure. The actor needs great stamina, the audience patience. It might not be a bad idea to have a cup of coffee before you arrive. Also think about the title (“History … of the Universe”). Do you really want to do this?

“Think spontaneously in the omniconvergent-divergent, systemic, kinetic geometry patterning of all our breathing, heart-beating, expanding-contracting,” Fuller says in a typical rant. He was a tireless traveler and speaker, and the conceit of the show — written by D.W. Jacobs and based on Fuller’s life, work and writings — is that of a long, dense lecture, punctuated by a bathroom break.

Kendall Simpson’s evocative sound design, Joseph A. Futral’s lovely lighting, and Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s sets use an aural and visual vocabulary to propel the tale.

Fuller talks about his troubles. He was born almost blind and spent his first 4 1/2 years in a kind of fog. As an adult, he drank heavily, contemplated suicide and elected to live two years in a state of silence and deep thinking.

He talks about the oceans; the heavens; the Vikings, the Venetians, the Phoenicians; Eisenhower; E.E. Cummings; Shakespeare; pirates; politics; the economy; Hiroshima; the Cold War; ships, airplanes; spaceships; gravity; his family; the Taj Mahal and the human body as a machine.

On Dec. 31, 1899, at midnight, he remembers his father opening the window to let in the new year. In a sense, Fuller spent the rest of his life chasing the 21st century. Here Tom Key chases, and sometimes catches, the genius of Fuller.

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