Fringe Review: “Lear in Limbo”: Shakespeare lovers tackle adapting Lear


Caitlin Heiligmann (‘Delia’) with puppet of King Lear’s Fool
(Photo Credit: James R. Murray)

Puppets. Family drama. Dementia. Shakespeare. Overalls. Lear in Limbo is an ambitious new play by Marc Nerenberg and Rosemary C. Reilly that takes on a re-contextualizing of Lear, while also tackling mental illness, modern sibling riffs and the inherent dilemma in choosing to pursue what we love. 

The show nearly began, by some strange fringe impossibility, early, and as we walked in we were greeted by (or in my case, mostly missed seeing) a pre-show puppet show. This contrasted with the clear start: a young woman enters, alone, and tells us about a memory of her father. We recognize the clear beginning of “a play”, and settle in. 

Lear in Limbo, within its first scenes, takes on the most famous moment of Lear: a father, Lee, surrounded by his three motherless daughters, attempts to separate out his estate to his children. The adaptation here is clumsy, and seems to be trying a little too hard to fit a contemporary family drama into the Lear mold. Eventually, we suspend our disbelief, and as in Shakespeare’s play, the two evil sisters get everything and Cordelia—here named Delia—is exiled. 

Caitlin Heiligmann (‘Delia’) with puppet of King Lear’s Fool
(Photo Credit: James R. Murray)

However, in Lear in Limbo, Delia is exiled for reasons that Shakespeare had not specified: Delia wants to follow her newly identified calling and be a street puppeteer. It is from this storyline onwards that the Lear retelling begins to take a backseat to the contemporary family drama. The story now briefly weaves its way into questioning the pursuit of an artistic path, which is likely relatable to most fringe audiences. But in this case, it actually seems to highlight the inherent privilege in Delia refusing to even attempt to support herself financially, and relying instead on family she never sees for money to survive. The play sort of made me agree with the other two sisters for the first time in my personal Lear history. Eventually, Lear in Limbo makes its way back to the original Lear, and we see Delia’s father begin to struggle with what we assume is dementia, which leads Delia back to her family responsibilities that she admits to having completely ignored. As the play progresses, we witness her father lose his grasp on reality. However, in Lear in Limbo, Lee’s particular ailment condemns him to only speaking lines of Lear. 

This contemporary retelling of Lear is touching, although it seems perhaps best suited to TYA audiences (despite some light swearing,) and it is clearly told (or retold) by playwrights who love the original play. The young adult feel doesn’t come from the use of puppets, but from the adaptation of the original play which, perhaps unavoidably, over-simplifies the Shakespearian masterpiece. However, I was expecting more of a puppet element, and can’t help but feel I missed out on one of the highlights of the show, which took place before the official start time. The brief use of puppets, especially when used by the actors who clearly have puppetry experience, is delightful and is really what lends the adaptation its originality. I would have loved an adaptation that weaved more puppets into the story—because, everybody loves puppets.

The human acting, overall, is eager and whole hearted. Lee, played by James R Murray, is particularly convincing, and Morgan Nerenberg is also remarkably honest in his small part(s.) There are a few other distinctly “side” characters who’s plot function is confusing, like the two elder women in the care facility played by the actresses who play the other two sisters. Although they perform old age fairly well, part of the success of this show lies in casting an age-appropriate father figure, which takes the show beyond what could be an amateur feel into a convincingly professional setting.

Lear in Limbo is for the fringe audiences who love supporting and fostering emerging talent, who can’t get enough of Shakespeare adaptations, and especially for anyone here for the wholesome, family stories.

Learinlimbo Productions presents “Lear in Limbo”
at the 29th St-Ambroise Montreal Fringe Festival

Performances: June 7 – 16, 2019
Venue: 03 – Le P’tit Impro
3713 Saint-Laurent #202, Montréal, H2X 2V7
Admission: $10 | Ages 12+
Box Office:
514.849.FEST (3378)

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