Review: ‘King Lear’, a puppet theatre adaptation by The Independent Eye (*****)

by Charles Kruger

Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller as King Lear and Fool. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.
Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller as King Lear and Fool. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

Husband and wife team Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller have been making art together for many decades. From prestigious academic theatre departments to Milwaukee’s influential Theatre X to their own company, “The Independent Eye,” Conrad and Elizabeth have forged an extraordinary career, presenting 3000+ performances throughout the United States, Canada, and as far away as Israel. They have created over 20 original plays, one of which was selected for the O’Neil Playwright’s Conference and another of which was a Humana Festival award winner. Their resumes include collaborations with an astounding number of theatre companies and university theatre departments nationwide. On their website, they proudly list as one of their core accomplishments that they “believe we’ve provided a model to some younger artists in the possibility of a fully lived life in art.” Indeed.

So why haven’t you heard of them? Quite simply, the commercial theatre in America is not a hospitable home for artists of this originality and caliber. Unwilling to compromise, they have made do, at times enduring such daunting challenges as touring 200 performances in a year while raising two children in a Dodge van. (The adult children are doing very well, today, thank you very much.)

I had heard of their puppet production of “The Tempest” presented a few years ago in collaboration with the Sonoma County Repertory, and been impressed. While assisting photographer Bob Fischer on a project featuring portraits of writers, I had even visited their magical back yard studio behind their home in Sebastopol, and seen the dazzling array of puppets which they had created.

So when I heard that these two master artists were at work on a two-person puppet production of King Lear, I was excited. And when I learned it would be produced at The Emerald Tablet, one of San Francisco’s most exciting art salons, I was beside myself. That’s a lot of anticipation, but the production does not disappoint!

Quite frankly, I have never seen anything like it. Within the confines of a puppet stage, too cramped even to stand up, these two create a sweeping, theatrically satisfying version of King Lear that can hold its own with the work of any Shakespeare Festival in the United States.

Conrad Bishop as Lear creates a roomful of courtiers using finger puppets.
Conrad Bishop as Lear creates a roomful of courtiers using finger puppets. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

It takes only a few moments to adjust to the size of the stage. It is the magical effect of the puppets to open up our imaginations — once we accept the puppets as people, everything else follows easily. And accept them as people we do, because they are beautifully designed and Bishop and Fuller are expert puppeteers. The illusion of a fully peopled stage is uncanny. When Lear begins his opening speech, an entire court of characters responds. How is that possible? While speaking as Lear, Bishop’s hands are up to amazing mischief — on each finger is a puppet. When Lear makes the surprising announcement of his retirement, Bishop flings his hands open and we see ten courtiers rear back in astonishment.

With the support of Fuller’s wonderful vocal score, we experience the royal court, the castles of Reagan and Goneril, the open heath, the cliffs of Dover, and more.

Fuller’s Fool, in full clown makeup, is haunting, with a rasping voice and a bone deep sorrow hiding just under the surface wit. Her Cordelia speaks with a grace and lightness that is an enchanting contrast to the rough tones of the Fool. And when she’s not speaking either part, she’s visibly stage managing, passing puppets back and forth, and singing and humming almost continuously, creating every sound effect including a very convincing storm.

Bishop delivers a full throated, resonant Lear, achieving the necessary size in the famous storm scene and managing all the emotional stops, from winsomeness to rage, from command to senility, from selfishness to generosity, from egoism to grace. It is a fully accomplished Shakespearean rendition.

The bastard Edmund soliloquizes. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.
The bastard Edmund soliloquizes. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

At this point in the review, I feel I should identify all the other actors in supporting roles. I almost have to pinch  myself to believe that the entire troupe — Goneril and Reagan, Kent and Edgar and Edmund, the French King, even the occasional servant, are all created by Bishop who never stops talking, switching seamlessly from character to character. I just don’t have the words to describe this, other than to say, it’s fucking wonderful.

The entire evening is an object lesson in what wonders theatrical art can accomplish. I will never forget it. You won’t either.

Go, my friends.

I have one bone to pick. It was at times difficult to see the stage. I’d like to urge the producers to consider seating some people in front on the floor, perhaps on pillows. It would fit the puppet theatre ambience, and greatly improve the sight lines, as would encouraging standing room in the back. These easy-to-implement adjustments would be very much appreciated by audience members.

“King Lear” plays at The Emerald Tablet in North Beach through April 26. For further information, click here.

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“King Lear”, a puppet performance presented by The Independent Eye. Performed by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller. Music: Elizabeth Fuller. Costume Construction: Fay Mallory. Rehearsal Stage Manager: Liora Jacob. Photography: S. N. Jacobson & Robert Fischer. 

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One thought on “Review: ‘King Lear’, a puppet theatre adaptation by The Independent Eye (*****)

  1. YES….YES……YES!! The Emerald Tablet will be packed!! Pillows for the front of audience excellent suggestion, too. What a fine review………Hurray!! OK American Theater take that!!

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