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A CurtainUp Review
Exit the King
Two of the most acclaimed absurdist comedies of the 20th century are being revived on Broadway this season. While Samuel Beckett's 1956 Waiting for Godot remains waiting in the wings (opening at the end of April), it is considered the reigning classic presumptive within the canon referred to as "Theatre of the Absurd" (a genre that peaked during the 1960s). Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King, arrived March 26, amid a torrent of praise.
Catching up with it a bit post opening, I am willing to admit that it fitfully lives up to its hype as well as to its legend as an equal to Ionesco's more popular 1960 comedy Rhinoceros. Previously only produced on Broadway by the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company in 1968 and off-Broadway by the Pearl Theatre Company in 2001 soon after 9/11, Exit the King is essentially a one-idea, one-act play stretched to full-length, like its dying 400 year-old title character, ordained to test the patience of the living. Encouraged by the tedium and redundancy of the play's message, I made a conscious effort to appreciate its sophomoric excesses in the light of what was deemed revolutionary in the 1960s. Today, the existentially driven drivel can only be as digestible as the actors who are assigned to it. Aren't we lucky that a stellar cast is almost successful in making this grimly comical play tolerable and at times a lot of fun?
The new Exit the King features a spiffy new translation (from a literal translation by Isabelle Maneot-Hewison) by long-time Australian-based collaborators Neil Armfield, the play's director, and its star, Geoffrey Rush. Although based on a 2007 production in Melbourne, Australia, this American staging has been augmented with a dream cast that also includes Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose, Andrea Martin, William Sadler, and Brian Hutchison. The translation itself could be credited as a star as it puts a snappy 21st century edge around Ionesco's mid 20th century text.
Unlike Ionesco's more familiar and rather frequently produced scarily bizarre one-acts, The Chairs, The Lesson, and The Bald Soprano, Exit the King' can, like Rhinoceros, be appreciated for its incisive political objective. Whether or not King Berenger is specifically succumbing to the destiny of most spoilers of empirical nations, he also represents all of us who can't see the inevitability of death or the effects of our actions during our lifetime.
Whether or not some may see the play as a timely swipe at our nation and/or its previous commander-in-chief, most everyone will be inclined to laugh at the topical infusions. But this is almost secondary to the sheer outrageousness of the dialogue and the performance style emanating, under Armfield's direction in the form of burlesque and vaudeville.
The plot revolves around an autocratic, stiff-necked but wobbly-kneed, 400 year-old King Berenger (Rush), a megalomaniac who has allowed his kingdom to disintegrate to the point where it has shriveled to just beyond the boundaries of his palace. After waging 180 wars among other catastrophic decisions, his subjects have been diminished to a thousand old people, and the world outside is sinking into an abyss.
It is obvious, as King Berenger (Rush) spastically parades around in his royal robes over red-striped pajamas and slippers, that, despite his delusions of omnipotence, he is no longer in control. His first wife Queen Marguerite (Sarandon) proceeds to make plans for his exit. This, while Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose), his younger second wife resists the inevitable. King Berenger, a pathetic clown of a ruler (in grotesque clown-face), is not quite willing or ready to throw in the towel. But he is quite nimble and adept with his scepter which he uses to help him ingeniously cross his legs among other tricks.
Presumably, Berenger and other characters are reflections of the French-Romanian playwright's own acknowledged feelings of isolation and loneliness. But more importantly, it remains for Rush to infiltrate to the core of this pathetic, egocentric king by empowering Ionesco's (by way of Rush and Armfield) daffy but pathetically pragmatic character. Rush, who won an Academy Award for his performance in the lauded film Shine, is making an auspicious Broadway debut. He appears to relish every misstep, pratfall, somersault and trip-up, more often than not caused by the length of his raiment's train. Rush masterfully navigates the clumsy, incompetent king's clownish and tragic trajectory.
The beautiful and talented film-star Sarandon, also an Academy Award winner who is returning to Broadway after a 27-year absence (An Evening with Richard Nixon), looks and sounds regal as the amusingly bitchy and impatient Queen Marguerite and survives her grievously over-long speech at the end of the play with aplomb. As Queen Marie, the beguiling Ambrose contributes an abundance of tears amid her florid displays of adoration for her king. Comedic veteran Andrea Martin is made up to look like an old discarded Raggedy Ann doll. She is a joy as Juliette, the over-worked, but hilariously intrusive, palace maid who insists on calling the throne room the living room. Sadler gets his share of laughs as the wry, opportunistic court physician and Hutchison, despite his body being encased in a suit of armor, manages to be stiffly but clearly expressive and funny.
The production's designer (sets and costumes) Dale Ferguson gets kudos for his outré costumes and the lengths (referring to the trio of trains for the royals) to which he goes to get a laugh. Handsome tapestries make up the walls of the throne room into which a lone trumpeter sitting in a theater box heralds various events with appropriate blasts. "It was a lot of fuss over nothing, wasn't it," says Queen Marguerite to the dying king. Or was it something?