Even among the plays of William Shakespeare, King Lear is monumental. George Bernard Shaw, who was better known for criticizing Shakespeare than praising him, wrote, “No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear.” It’s a superbly crafted play of epic proportions that’s very difficult to perform well. Older actors contemplate whether they’re finally ready to take it on as if they were preparing to climb Mount Everest.
Now a few local stage veterans are tackling Lear in two unconventional and very different shows across town from each other. At the Emerald Tablet Gallery in the heart of North Beach, the Sebastopol couple known as the Independent Eye is performing a two-person King Lear in which Lear and his Fool reenact the story of the king’s downfall with puppets. Meanwhile in the Mission, at the Marsh, the great comedic actor and clown Geoff Hoyle lets the Fool tell his side of the story in a solo show, Lear’s Shadow.
Both versions cover the basic storyline: King Lear decides to retire and split his kingdom between his three daughters, demanding first that each tell him how much she loves him. Eldest daughters Goneril and Regan flatter him with lavish claims of love, while his favorite, youngest daughter Cordelia, tells him modestly that she loves him exactly as much as is her duty. Enraged, he banishes her, dividing his kingdom between the other two. Of course, they mistreat him and he winds up a homeless vagabond, at the mercy of the pitiless elements, looked after only by his court jester and other outcasts.
'O Exceeding Puppet!'
In the Independent Eye's distillation, Lear and the Fool (company founders Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller) sit in a small booth lined with puppets that represent all the other characters. Although condensed to 100 minutes without intermission, this version retells the entire play, with all its many characters and subplots.
The puppets, designed by Bishop, are wonderfully creepy, with subtly grotesque scowling faces and unnervingly realistic eyes. Most are hand puppets of various sizes. Crowds are represented by finger puppets. Gloucester’s scheming son Edmund is played by a larger puppet with one real hand that turns his father and brother into his puppets.
Director Bishop plays Lear and voices most of the other roles. His Lear is wild-haired and feverish and utterly convincing, often heartbreakingly so. His character voices are deftly defined, making it easy to tell the many players apart. At one point late on opening night, one character seemed to slip into the voice of another, but by that point it seemed miraculous that Bishop could keep all the lines straight, much less the voices.
Fuller’s curmudgeonly Fool is a red-nosed clown, hoarse-voiced and dour, with his head often down, as if asleep or dead. In addition to interacting with Lear, the Fool summarizes the scene changes or parts of the play we've skipped over in amusingly modern language (while everyone else’s language is Shakespeare’s). Especially poignant is the Fool’s observation of his own abrupt disappearance from the play: “Don’t know what happens to me. I don’t come back. Maybe I’m dead.”
Fuller also plays several puppet characters and manipulates many other puppets, whether or not she’s voicing them. There are so many characters coming and going all the time that the puppetry alone is like a virtuoso juggling act.
Sometimes the dialogue seems rushed, if only because one person may be playing several people talking to each other, hardly taking a breath in between. Because the pace is so fast and the story abbreviated, the action occasionally becomes hard to follow, but not often.
With effectively spooky flickering lights and sinister, moaning music composed by Fuller, the staging is dazzlingly inventive, and some of the imagery is breathtaking. When Gloucester’s fugitive son Edgar takes on the disguise of a mad vagrant, he’s represented by two puppets, the clean nobleman looking down at the filthy madman as if gazing at his reflection in a pond; and then the two switch places. All in all, it’s a startlingly effective and haunting Lear -- more so than most that have a full cast of living actors.
'None But the Fool'
In Hoyle’s version, you’d never know that there were characters in the original play other than Lear, his daughters and the Fool. Hoyle's conceit is that the aging Fool is auditioning for a new jester job and telling his story in answer to the question of why he left his previous employer. “Because everybody’s dead?” he asks rhetorically.
As he retells the King Lear story from the his own perspective, he adds many original touches. According to the Fool, he basically raised Lear’s daughters while the king was busy torturing dissenters. (The Fool acts out the tortures in grisly detail as if this were hilarious.) Most notably, he relates how he once told the girls a fairy tale about a king who asks his three daughters how much they love him -- a variant of the Lear story that is indeed an actual folk tale --and blames himself for introducing the idea.
As it happens, though, the bits of Shakespeare’s play that we get throughout Hoyle’s show are much stronger than his interpolated material -- which he wrote in collaboration with his director, monologue guru David Ford. Hoyle is a marvelous performer, and his delivery of actual speeches from Lear is stunning, especially the way he embodies the impotent rage and sorrow of a once-powerful man who’s lost everything through his own poor judgment. Hoyle gives each of the sisters a distinct and memorable personality by means of his posture and voice. His central character, the Fool, is polished in his comedic movements (and elegantly attired by Beaver Bauer). But his jokes -- told as he accompanies himself with melancholy fiddling -- are mirthless and very dark.
This Fool seethes with class resentment, which is an interesting though unconvincingly modern touch. But what he seems to resent most is not being recognized as a kind of parent to Lear’s daughters, which is a baffling expectation to have. The Fool chafes at being seen simply as a servant, but as vibrantly as Hoyle brings him to life, he’s still a nameless supporting character in his own story. The play’s title, Lear’s Shadow, is a line from Shakespeare, meant to describe what the king had become. But it also describes the Fool and the dwelling-place destiny has designed for him.