I love puppets.
It’s a secret that only a certain number of people know about me, but in my late teens, I was a professional puppeteer. It’s true. I had my own company – a puppet company – and we toured around Southern California doing, you know, puppet shows.
That was a 35 years ago, but as a guy who knows what its like to bring an inanimate object to life, I still appreciate the sheer difficulty of putting puppets on stage in a theatrical production. Which brings us to the The Independent Eye’s dreamlike staging of William Shakespeare’s epic tragedy “King Lear,” running Fridays and Saturdays through April 26 at the Emerald Tablet art gallery in San Francisco.
This is “King Lear” as a puppet show.
Which makes more sense than it sounds.
The puppets themselves, to begin with, are breathtaking. Eerily beautiful works of art, these old fashioned hand-puppets are amazing to see, and in the hands of Sebastopol theater artists Elizabeth Fuller and Conrad Bishop – Bishop built the puppets himself – they pop to life in mesmerizing ways. These are not the fluffy, cutesy-bootsy kind of puppets you might see in a children’s show, which is good because King Lear is not some fluffy, cutesy-bootsy Shakespeare play.
The story is well known.
The aging monarch Lear, who impulsively hands the rule of his kingdom over to his daughters, somehow believes he is still in control of his kingdom and his destiny, but his greedy family members have plans of their own. It isn’t pretty. Eye gouging is involved. King Lear, after all, is a tragedy about weak-willed people becoming puppets to their own desires and to each other, helpless in the cruel hands of fate. Clearly, none of Shakespeare’s works is better suited to the puppet show treatment than this.
Bishop, in flowing white hair and a crown of leather braid, plays the increasingly frail and frustrated Lear. Fuller, in full clown makeup and red nose, is Lear’s faithful fool. All of the other characters are played by puppets, voiced and manipulated by Bishop and Fuller.
At times, the way this talented twosome manipulates those puppets, the blank faces coming alive with no more than a tiny adjustment of angle, is nothing short of genius. The sound design by Fuller is also amazing, constructed entirely from Fuller’s own voice, transformed through a vocal processor into a soundtrack of haunting reverberations and otherworldly music.
But for all its visual and auditory glory, the production – as currently constructed – is frustratingly confusing and hard-to-follow at times. Though Bishop easily ranks as one of the best, most heartbreaking Lear’s I’ve ever seen, his performance is hampered by the need to play scenes against puppets he’s voicing himself – with not a lot of vocal variation from one puppet character to another – all of which adds to a strangely muddled flow in the proceedings.
At times it’s hard to tell which character is speaking when.
In other shows I’ve seen by the Independent Eye, such as their adaptations of “The Tempest” and “Frankenstein,” a troupe of four or five performers An additional puppeteer or two would allow others to play several of Bishop’s puppet characters, freeing Bishop to engage and interact as Lear unencumbered. A performance this good deserves nothing less.
In the end, how much you enjoy this eerie Lear may depend on your ability to ignore the problems, and simply surrender to the strange, lush beauty of it all.
“King Lear” runs Friday and Saturday through April 25 at The Emerald Tablet. Independenteye.org.
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB