The designs and theories of Buckminster Fuller may seem like quaint retrofuturism today, but there was a time when his utopian ideas seemed to hold the key to peaceful and sustainable human existence on earth — at least he thought so. “We need to find within technology that there is something we can do which is capable of taking care of everybody, and to demonstrate that this is so,” he said in a 1981 interview. “That’s what geodesic domes are about and that’s what my whole life has been about.” Another of his projects, the World Game, is the focus of God Is a Verb, a very sharp, poignant, and pointedly critical play by Gavin Broady currently having its premiere with Hook & Eye Theater in Brooklyn.
The fast-paced comedy follows a group of Fuller fanatics in the 1960s who are using the World Game — a kind of contemporary version of Risk that calculates the impacts of various environmental, economic, and geopolitical what-ifs — to try to find a scenario that will restore planetary harmony. The play opens as a newcomer named Ida (Hannah Hartmann) joins this cultish clique 10 days before they’re due to present their solution to all the world’s problems to the “United States Senate Subcommittee on Utopian Conjecture.” (Fuller and a team of his researchers did in fact make a presentation to a congressional subcommittee in 1969.)
Though Fuller is their god figure, he never appears or is even named. He is only referred to as “The Professor” and calls into the research facility by way of a rotary phone at the front of the stage. The project’s lead researchers are each in turn imbued with his spirit, donning his trademark glasses and intoning his distinctive Massachusetts accent. The conceit is confusing at first, but the excellent cast and clever lighting and costume cues quickly make things clear. Whenever incarnating Fuller, the researchers speak in enigmatic pronouncements — “Whenever I meet someone who’s 21 it’s like meeting someone who lives in a town I once visited” — and coin ridiculous names for impractical new inventions like the “helio-refractive aqua-transphasic amplification array” (giant mirrors to melt the snow off mountaintops and solve water shortages).
Following Ida’s brainwashing-like initiation rite, or her “re-geniusing” — “We are all born geniuses, but living de-geniuses us,” a researcher possessed by Fuller explains. “We must learn to re-genius ourselves.” — the more dangerous and cultish aspects of the World Game begin to emerge, and God Is a Verb‘s critical view of Fuller comes into focus. Frustrated by the professor’s totalitarian ways, the researchers go rogue and play an unsanctioned round of the World Game, one that includes less far-fetched ideas like global vegetarianism, more bicycles, and vertical gardens for everyone. The outcome, calculated by a giant, primitive computer: “Perpetual sustainability.” Broady suggests that Fuller’s zany futuro-humanist theories and patented, multi-hyphenate inventions were ivory tower solutions to real world problems, laboratory fixes that were not viable outside the academy.
Bucky buffs will delight in the play’s countless references to his work and life, including the alleged 1927 suicide attempt that engendered an apparition and epiphany, setting him on his lifelong mission to save the planet. It occasionally feels like there’s too much going on to keep track of — a flashback scene to the apparent lightbulb moment that spawned the World Game is especially confounding — but director Chad Lindsey and his actors keep the pace quick and the quips bouncing back and forth. You may end up skeptical of the feasibility of Fuller’s dream, but you’ll leave sharing the professor’s vision of “peace in our time and a dome at the end of every driveway.”
Hook & Eye Theater‘s God Is a Verb continues at the Actors Fund Arts Center (160 Schermerhorn Street, Downtown Brooklyn) through November 21.
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Gee, whenever I meet somebody who’s 21 I see a snotty little punk. Maybe it’s time to retire from teaching.
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