Exit the King
The greatest mystery of life is death. From the time humankind developed sufficient cognitive skills, it has grappled with the question of the afterlife. Does it exist, and if it does, what is it like, and do our actions in life determine the afterlife? Unable to resolve that issue prompts endless speculation and anxiety about our passing. Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King deals with just that question.
Along with Samuel Becket, Ionesco flourished in the mid-20th century as one of the foremost practitioners of what, retroactively, would be know as Theatre of the Absurd, whose central tenet concerns the meaninglessness of existence. Exit the King is the third play of four in the playwright’s “Berenger Cycle” named for the character who appears throughout in the series. The previous work in the cycle, Rhinoceros, is perhaps Ionesco’s most important work. It is profoundly socio-political, and Berenger is the only survivor of his group not to turn into a rhinoceros (interpretation: Nazi). Exit the King falls at the other end of the spectrum as a very personal and psychological exploration in which Berenger effectively runs through four of the stages of the Kubler-Ross model of dying – denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.
King Berenger’s story is told from the absurdist’s perspective rather than as conventional drama, and farcical humor drives the narrative. But unusual for the playwright, its linear structure produces an approachable storyline, albeit as ungrounded in reality as his other fare. Indeed, in humanity’s known concept of time, the action occurs in real time and even makes occasional references to how many minutes remain until the end of the play when the king will die.
But in the timewarp of the play, events outside the castle speed by. The human life cycle that would normally run 60-80 years passes in hours. Indeed, this play is an absurdist’s treatise on death, and one issue that it addresses is the perceptual issue that we face in life of the seeming unevenness of the passage of time, with time slipping away rapidly the nearer we are to death.
Berenger has lived for 400 years, but his world precipitously crumbles around him. His subjects are deaf to his commands; people and animals are dying in droves; the planets are colliding; the Milky Way is curdling; and the crack in the throne room wall is growing. What else could go wrong? Observing how perverse the world has become, the court doctor notes, “Now it is so normal to be abnormal, there is no such thing as abnormal.”
But despite the indications, the king refuses to accept his mortality. And he operates within his own social construction of reality in which everything of life is about him (I won’t make the obvious comment that would pertain to someone in the American political sphere at this time), and that when he dies, all of existence will die with him. However, his argument loses its power when he demands that everything be named after him when he’s gone and by his entertaining the attraction of reincarnation.
So what do we make of this work as art, as philosophy, as entertainment? Certainly, the issues raised at both the majesterial and universal levels are of great consequence and resonance with our own existence. Many theater goers will find them presented in a fascinating fashion. However, the bizarre events and over-the-top stylings of Theater of the Absurd are not for everyone, and not everything that wants to be funny is. Detractors will find it strained and distracting. Yet even those not attracted to this style should be drawn to this play for its intellectual power and historical and literary significance.
An additional draw is that Exit Theatre’s production is quite captivating. All of the fundamental elements, including set design and costumes work. But what really stands out are Amanda Ortmayer’s engaging lighting sequences and Ryan Lee Short’s excellent sound.
The acting cadre is comprised of talented Bay Area veterans who capture the sense of the absurd. Don Wood enthralls as the king – self-absorbed and delusional. At one moment he is wry, at another he is touching, but he always returns to his demonstrative egocentrism. With an hour left to live, he winces and begs for a century, claiming, like most mortals, that he never had enough time to get things done.
Mikka Bonel is excellent as the second queen, Marie. Her part is played with the most consistent farcical affect, and she carries out the wailing and flailing and anxiety with gusto. Christina Augello is the first queen, Marguerite. She is masterful with her imperiousness and condescension, however, she did muff too many lines and did not always maintain the intensity of her portrayal. She is a fine actor, and these matters should resolve. Credit director Stuart Bousel for bringing the pieces all together in a well orchestrated manner.
Exit the King written by Eugène Ionesco is produced by Exit Theatre and plays at their stage at 156 Eddy St., San Francisco, CA through April 7, 2018.