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Master of Puppets

Sebastopol artists launch lush 'Lear'

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NO DUMMY Edgar sees his Mad Tom reflection as King Lear (Conrad Bishop) watches. - S. N. JACOBSON
  • S. N. Jacobson
  • NO DUMMY Edgar sees his Mad Tom reflection as King Lear (Conrad Bishop) watches.

The handcrafted puppets in the Independent Eye's dreamlike staging of Shakespeare's King Lear are eerily lovely.

The aging Lear, who hands the reins of his kingdom over to his daughters, believes he is still in control of his destiny, but his family has plans of its own. Clearly, none of Shakespeare's works is better suited to the puppet-show treatment than this, a tragedy of weak-willed people becoming puppets to their own desires and to each other, helpless in the hands of fate.

Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller of Sebastopol have worked sixteen-months on their Lear, building over 30 puppets for the production now running at the Emerald Tablet in San Francisco.

Bishop appears as Lear; Fuller, in full clown makeup and red nose, is Lear's faithful fool. All the other characters are played by puppets, voiced and manipulated by Bishop and Fuller, the latter delivering a number of humorous, non-Shakespeare passages that serve as modern-language narration to summarize the goings on. That's helpful, because even cut down to a slim 100 minutes, Lear is a play with a whole lot going on: dozens of primary characters, multiple sub-plots and some of Shakespeare's loveliest and saddest writing.

What might have seemed a mere stunt in other performers' hands is here clearly a work of passion and artistry. The puppets are truly magnificent, and at times, under Bishop and Fuller's manipulation, their blank faces come alive with no more than a tiny adjustment of angle. It 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.

For all its visual and auditory glory, however, the production—as currently constructed—is frustratingly confusing and muddled. 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) and adds to a strangely muddled flow in the proceedings. At times, it's hard to tell who's saying what to whom.

An additional puppeteer would free Bishop to engage and interact unencumbered. A performance this good deserves it. 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.

Rating (out of 5): ★★★½

'King Lear' runs Friday and Saturday through April 25 at the Emerald Tablet. 80 Fresno St., San Francisco. Shows at 8pm. $20–$25. Tickets are available online at www.brownpapertickets.com and at the door.

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