The Madness of King Lear: Puppets, Acclaimed Clown Tackling Shakespeare Tale in Two Productions

When it comes to playing King Lear, renowned actor Geoff Hoyle isn't exactly straight out of central casting, as he freely admits. “I know no one's going to cast me,” he says. “I'm this diminutive 5'6″, 130-pound guy” — not exactly what you picture for Shakespeare's impulsive, raging ruler and father who disastrously divides his kingdom among his three daughters.

But it isn't just Hoyle's stature, it's his résumé — not that it's not impressive. Hoyle is a nationally renowned clown who studied mime with Étienne Decroux and originated the role of Zazu in The Lion King on Broadway. This Bay Area homeboy was also part of San Francisco's legendary Pickle Family Circus in the 1970s, in addition to starring in numerous comic roles at American Conservatory Theater and Berkeley Repertory Theatre, among many other companies.

Despite his accomplished comedy background, Hoyle's fascination with King Lear runs deep. He first encountered it as an English schoolboy and had to memorize passages of the tragedy for exams. Even then, he says, “I was floored by both the language and the cruelty — the fact that it was uncompromisingly true to life, that it doesn't have a happy ending. It suits my dark Yorkshire vision.”

So if no one else could see the consummate jester as a tragic king, Hoyle thought, “I'll build my own version.” Enter Lear's Shadow, which is in previews at the Marsh, where Hoyle has performed many other solo shows.

Though Hoyle's going against type in essaying Lear, neither will he deprive his fans of his sublime comic skills. The other main role in Hoyle's adaptation is the Fool, who, in the original King Lear, sticks with Lear at depths of madness when most others have abandoned him.

Hoyle is deeply drawn to both parts, he says, because, “The relationship between the king and his Fool inverts. The king goes mad, and the Fool loses his madness and becomes sane. It's like two sides of the same coin.”

In the original, the Fool is onstage for only a brief time, speaking, Hoyle says, in “wit upon wit and riddle upon riddle — it's so cryptic.” The tendency for most actors playing Shakespeare's Fool, Hoyle says, “is to babble it really fast, and people say, 'Well, what the fuck is that all about?'”

Hoyle's version, which is directed by David Ford, “strips out a lot of that Shakespearean Renaissance wit”; Hoyle stresses that the show will be intelligible to even those who've never read the original. The audience meets the Fool, “a newly unemployed song-and-dance man,” says Hoyle, right after Shakespeare's story has ended, so the jester can tell his side of the story. Lear's Shadow explores why he stays with a king who treats him so badly — and why and how he keeps telling the truth about the king when he's liable to get his head chopped off.

Across the city, 41-year-old company Independent Eye is staging another version of King Lear that also highlights the relationship between the King and the Fool. It opens at the Emerald Tablet next month before embarking on an East Coast tour. It's arguably even more radical than Hoyle's adaptation, though it doesn't change a word of Shakespeare's text outside of making some cuts. This King Lear is staged with puppets — almost 30 of them, ranging in size from finger puppets to hand puppets to life-size ones.

King Lear and the Fool are the only characters played by humans: the company's two members, Conrad Bishop (who designed and built the puppets) and Elizabeth Fuller (who wrote the show's score), who are also husband and wife. They interact in character with the puppets they're operating, all in full view of the audience. “It's almost like someone telling the story of their life with puppets,” Fuller says.

The pair is well aware of the assumptions audiences make about shows with puppets. “As soon as you say 'puppets,' people think 'kids,'” Fuller says. But in fact, “These are simply little non-human performers that are with us on the stage,” and their very non-reality gives them a special power that live performers don't have. A play with puppets, Fuller says, “isn't something that you judge on the basis of, 'If I saw this on the street, would I believe it?' When you see something that's asking you to accept as true something that's not, when you take that first step, you open yourself more fully to the theatrical experience.”

Bishop sees Lear in part as a failed theater director, with the Fool as his stage manager. “There's something about the relationship of power in all those moments with Lear, when suddenly things don't go his way, 'when the thunder would not peace at my bidding,'” Bishop says. Fuller describes their set, which is so compact that the extent of Bishop's choreography is to occasionally stand up and sit down, as “an aluminum Doctor Who box.” It's a bit like Lear's metaphorical cage, Bishop says. “He can walk through the front, but he won't.”

The Bay Area will see a number of King Lears this year — California Shakespeare Theater will also be producing the show in the fall, presumably in a more conventional version — which is a rare treat, as this play is performed much less often than Shakespeare's other tragedies.

Fuller attributes the preponderance of productions to our uncertain times. “I think we are being confronted with so many massive events that have awful potential outcomes,” she says. “In the interest of putting one foot in front of the other, a lot of us draw the shades in the mind. But there's still that ache and that pressure, and that's one thing about theater. It gives you an opportunity to go to dangerous places safely.”

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