TheatreWorks Knocks 'Em Dead With 'Exit the King'
If you were told you would die at the end of the day, what would you do in your final hours?
In “Exit the King,” Eugene Ionesco’s classic absurdist comedy of death, King Berenger the First wastes his final hours by refusing to accept his death, and goes so far as to throwing a royal hissy fit. As macabre as it may seem from afar, his is, perhaps, the liveliest death on theatrical record.
“Exit the King” is the third in Ionesco's “Berenger trilogy” the first two being “The Killer” and “Rhinocéros,” but it remains the least staged of the Romanian-born French playwright’s repertoire. It made its Broadway debut in 1968, and though it was considered Ionesco’s “incomparably greatest work,” by New York Times critic Clive Barnes, this seldom-staged production had only 47-performances. In 2009, despite its star power, some audiences left at intermission, long before the final curtain.
Considerably shorter than the version used for the 2009 Tony Award-nominated revival, the TheatreWorks New Milford production, directed brilliantly by Jane Farnol, is a dramatic hoot. Most theaters would stay far from a production whose characters spend more than two hours in the longer version telling the lead he is going to die, whether he wants to or not. What audience could possibly enjoy itself while a man on stage laments and refuses to admit for so long that his party is about to end?
Fortunately, TheatreWorks’ substantial trimming of the source material does not diminish the play or its message. Rather, it is one of the most enjoyable, albeit quite short, evenings of theater. This reviewer concurs with the sentiments of a USA Today review of the 2009 production: TheatreWorks’ version offers “… a welcome respite from real-life woes. ... Ionesco’s account of a ruler who squanders his time is well worth yours.”
King Berenger (a wonderful Mark Feltch) has seen better days. He once commanded great armies, was beloved by his people, and ruled a kingdom of millions, but his realm has dwindled to the confines of a garden wall. And what is left of the kingdom is crumbling into an abyss. His court, reduced to a small, indifferent entourage, seem indifferent about his imminent passing.
There is Juliette (a hilarious Paula Anderson), the underappreciated domestic help, court nurse and cook; The Guard (an energetically loyal John Fabiani) and The Doctor (Kyle Minor), who proudly serves as the court doctor, astrologist and executioner, and a couple of henchmen (John Bolster and Ken Greiter). And who can forget King Berenger’s rival queens, Marie (a weepy but uproariously funny Susan Abrams), and Margeurite (a more realistic, but cold Jude Callirgos Robinson).
And if that wouldn’t be enough for anyone, His Majesty must deal with the realization he will, indeed, die at the end of the play. King Berenger, a man who could once command the sun, rants against his fate, until he eventually goes through the stages of grief with tremendous pathos. Berenger is the oppression of ego realized, willing to do anything—even the destroy the world—to live. But even the most powerful king must bow before death.
As Ms. Farnol noted, “Only Ionesco could have made death so funny,” and her remarkably talented cast breathes life into this peculiar, thought-provoking story, a true masterpiece of “Theater of the Absurd.”
Both new and veteran actors to TheatreWorks bring a wealth of talent to the stage, but the evening truly belongs to Mr. Feltch as the ailing king. Clad in maroon-striped pajamas, his Berenger is a woeful, shell of a man who laments his days of commanding the sun and stars, great armies and his people, experiences he will never again enjoy. Mr. Feltch’s physical and emotional performance is at once amusing and heart rending—and ultimately breathtaking. One must imagine he is as exhausted as King Berenger when the curtain falls.
Kudos go to producer and set designer Glenn R. Couture for his beautiful, yet simple rendering of a crumbling royal palace, and costume designer Renee Purdy for her exquisite costuming, which ranges from the simplicity of Juliette’s uniform and the guard’s chainmail, to the rich fabrics of the queens’ gowns.
While clocking in at just over an hour, TheatreWorks New Milford’s “Exit the King” is a rich theatrical experience, a real royal hit. Death has never been such fun.