In the 1970s, a wave of edgy sketch comedy from groups like the Firesign Theater and Second City Revue redefined the concept of ensemble theater. Today the form is undergoing another metamorphosis with an infusion from dance, multimedia, circus arts and even puppetry.
San Francisco’s biannual FURY Factory theater festival celebrates this change by showcasing 30 award-winning ensemble pieces and works in progress on the Noh space stage of Theater Yugen and in other locations.
This weekend’s offerings include “Hands Up!,” a series of “comic meditations on mortality” told through life-sized puppets by Independent Eye, the collaboration of theater veterans Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller.
Bishop and Fuller, creative and life partners for 50 years, were founding members of Minneapolis X Theater before moving to Philadelphia, where an appearance on one of Fresh Air’s early broadcasts launched their own two-year NPR radio series, “Hitchhiking off the Map.”
Having written and performed every theatrical style from drama to cabaret and sketch comedy, lately they have turned their skills to the world of puppetry, which Bishop describes as “live theatrical animation.”
“We’ve done puppetry off and on over the entire span of time but it’s only in the last few years we decided to really focus on it,” he says.
“Hands Up!” features six stories ranging from the darkly comedic to the poignant.
One wistful piece regards the wisdom of age. “We play two elderly people [with life-sized papier-mâché puppet masks] looking at their younger selves [as articulated doll puppets] at the time they break up and go their separate ways for the rest of their lives,” says Bishop, who designs and constructs the puppets.
Fuller and Bishop have also resurrected one earlier repertory piece, the tale of a woman who opens her front door only to find clowns appearing as the messengers of doom.
“It’s like watching Bernie Madoff do stand-up about what he did — and relishing it,” she says.
Fuller describes “At the Prom with Kali” as a “coming-of-age piece” — Kali being the Hindu pantheon’s fierce representation of dissolution and destruction.
“It’s about coming to terms with the idea that if you want to buy the ticket, if you want to take the ride, you have to take the whole ride from birth and including death,” she says.
And then there’s one about the court-authorized murder of a marionette — a true story about Howdy Doody. If that doesn’t get you to the theater, or cause nightmares, nothing will.
IF YOU GO
Presented by Independent Eye
Where: Noh Space, 2840 Mariposa St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Friday, 9 p.m. Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (800) 838-3006; www.brownpapertickets.com
FURY Factory 2011
Co-hosted by Z Space and Theatre of Yugen
Where: Z Space @ Artaud, 450 Florida St.; Jewish Theatre, 470 Florida St.; Joe Goode Annex, 499 Alabama St., No. 150; and Noh Space, all in San Francisco
When: Through June 26
Selected mainstage highlights
“Mulchini’s Kitchen!” 4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Jewish Theatre
Chard Gonzalez Dance Theatre
“The Divine Feminine,” June 17-19, Noh Space
Rose Nisker, Strong Coffee Stage
“Solea por Aire,” “Antigone,” June 21-23, Joe Goode Annex
Theatre Movement Bazaar
“Anton’s Uncles,” June 23-25, Jewish Theatre
“(R)Evolution X,” June 24-26, Noh Space