Review: ‘King Lear’ with puppets by The Independent Eye at NOH Space (*****)

by Mark Johnson

Missing this “King Lear” Should Be Considered A Crime

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.

Hearing that The Independent Eye’s production of “King Lear” consists of just two actors, a minuscule set, and about a dozen puppets may make even the most courageous theatergoer slightly wary. However, this production is just about as good as Shakespeare productions get, and possibly one of the best versions of “King Lear” you will ever get to see, thanks to wonderful performances and visual ingenuity to spare.

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.

Though a puppet Lear may sound like a gimmick, the puppets are not only utilized perfectly, but provide for a deeper insight into the play. Lear’s madness is easy to see and feel when everyone he addresses stares back at him with cold, unfeeling eyes, and the uselessness of human authority is ingeniously visualized by having Lear himself be the one to control the entire company’s actions. It helps that the puppets are crafted with beautiful skill and have faces that may haunt you for days after.

As the (non-puppet) Lear, Conrad Bishop is perfect. With a menacing growl that seems to rattle the audience’s bones, he manages the tricky task of balancing ferocious madness with desperate pathos, making the famously difficult role look easy. Particularly impressive are his soliloquies of philosophy; at most Shakespearean performances, audiences calmly wait for such monologues to be over, but here they gain a startling urgency, forcing the audience to pay attention and participate in the thematic scope of the work.

Conrad Bishop as Lear and Elizabeth Fuller as The Fool, with the bastard Edmund, a puppet, looking on. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.
Conrad Bishop as Lear and Elizabeth Fuller as The Fool, with the bastard Edmund, a puppet, looking on. Photo Credit: The Independent Eye.

As the fool (also not a puppet), Elizabeth Fuller is bitterly humorous and quietly, powerfully mournful. As the only two actors in this production, Fuller and Bishop also take on the rest of the parts, succeeding wildly with impressively distinct characterizations.

Also of note is the severe editing down of the text (normally running over three hours, this production lasts only an hour and forty minutes), decentralizing the action on Lear’s daughters and focusing instead almost entirely on the mad king. Many of the cut parts are paraphrased by Fuller in quick but starkly humorous summaries, and the missing hour does not compromise the dramatic completeness of the play. It does prove slightly difficult to follow at some points (and “Lear” is already known for its labyrinthine plot) so a quick review of the synopsis might be helpful for theatergoers.

Missing this “King Lear” should be considered a crime. It doubtless will qualify as one of the best events of the year.

“King Lear” plays at NOH Space as part of the Fury Factory Festival through June 18. For further information, click here.

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Rating: *****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
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IF YOU ENJOY READING THEATRESTORM, PLEASE CLICK HERE TO EXPRESS YOUR APPRECIATION.
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The Independent Eye’s“King Lear”. Performed by Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller. Direction, Design, & Puppets: Conrad Bishop. Music: Elizabeth Fuller. Costume Construction: Fay Mallory. Rehearsal Stage Manager: Liora Jacob. Photography: S. N. Jacobson & Robert Fischer.

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Editor’s Note: The Independent Eye also brought “King Lear” to San Francisco in the spring of 2015. Click here to read a review.

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