Shakespeare's tragedy “King Lear” was written for a cast of more than 20 actors. The Independent Eye's new production has two humans and 20 puppets.
“We have an itch to tell big stories,” says Conrad Bishop, “and the puppets are our assistants.”
Bishop, who plays the title character, and his wife Elizabeth Fuller, who plays Lear's Fool, also are the puppeteers in the unusual show, which opens Friday at The Emerald Tablet, an art gallery in North Beach.
For this production, the actors – who have been working together for 54 years, touring the country and presenting thousands of below-the-radar shows – will be on a 4- by 6-foot stage, evoking the sense that Lear and the Fool are confined in a cage or cell.
The idea to do “Lear” with such a small cast has roots in “Hitchhiking off the Map,” a 94-episode radio program they did from 2002-06 that aired locally on KPFA.
“Our work in radio enhanced our puppetry. We grew accustomed to having to set scenes and characters just with our voices,” Bishop says.
At times in “Lear,” Bishop portrays four characters in one scene, embodying Lear and animating three others.
“Often, I'm raging against myself. But it's a style with broader physicality, and I think it fits the text rhythms more effectively than so-called conventional stagings,” he says.
Fuller, who composed the production's music, operates the Cordelia puppet, and as Lear's Fool, is the tour guide of play. She describes the Fool as a “Shakespearean insult comic who's seen better days. Besides playing the scenes, he stage-manages and runs tech cues from an onstage laptop. And you'll meet me running the box office, where I try to be friendlier than I am with Lear.”
At 73, white-haired Bishop is the perfect age to play the king, and, he looks the part.
Ready to take on Lear's “journey from absolute power through madness, to discovering love, and then losing that,” he says, “the role is like a 100-minute toboggan run down a very steep slope. You kick off at the beginning and gravity takes you.”
IF YOU GO
Presented by The Independent Eye
Where: Emerald Tablet, 80 Fresno St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, plus closing show 2 p.m. April 26
Tickets: $20 to $25
Contact: (415) 500-2323, www.independenteye.org