The Daily Californian Online

Play 'Exit the King' Leaves Lasting Impression

By Danica Li
Contributing Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Theater

Checkmate. Norman Macleod (center), Beth Chastain (left) and Satya Soleil Starr (right) star in 'Exit the King.'

Early on in "Exit the King," King Berenger is informed that he will die in exactly an hour and 30 minutes. The declaration is but a formality. His body is failing him. His kingdom is going to pieces around him. The last remaining ministers of his country are disposing of themselves in the nearest river stream. Once able to bend others and all the forces of nature to his will, the king is now unable to even lever himself up to his feet without collapsing. Presented by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley and directed by Jerome Solberg, "Exit the King" is a blackly comedic farce and a revealingly philosophical acceleration toward death.

The play is third in Eugene Ionesco's Berenger Cycle, named for its anxious protagonist; previous iterations include "The Killer" and "Rhinoceros," absurdist dramas where Berenger is also featured. Ionesco is commonly aligned with Samuel Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd in that both explore themes of isolation and humanity in its ground state of excruciating emotional quarantine. In many ways "Exit the King" is one of Ionesco's most accessible works. It happens in chronological order. Dialogue is understandable. Its characters don't turn into a herd of rhinoceros or detonate in a fit of homicidal lunacy.

Certainly, "Exit the King" exhibits the Ionescoian hallmarks of fourth-wall violations, abrupt surrealism and bouts of wild caricature. The guard bellows a lot of nonsense according to the wishes of the royalty, with hilarious comedic timing. Preserved from its original French, the play's loopy wordplay makes for the fine-detail entertainment one expects from an Ionesco production. Haughty Queen Marguerite, the cast-off second-favorite, sweeps about with narrowed eyes and cynical grandeur, remarking on the play's length and passage of real time: "You will die at the end of this show," she repeatedly tells her husband.

One serious weakness is the variability in acting quality. Norman Macleod's King Berenger is a marvelous act to behold. Once unassailable, now a knock-kneed wreck, the king is nearly crippled and undeniably pathetic-but still a commanding stage presence for all his chest-puffery and attacks of slack-mouthed senility. His anguish, while sometimes comically exaggerated, is really what anchors us in sympathy for his struggles. Beth Chastain, as Queen Marguerite, fills out her role with a spine of imperial steel. But a simpering Queen Marie grates on the nerves-one imagines that an evocation of childish innocence and belief in the power of love was not meant to be this annoying-and the Doctor's stentorian oration is too big for his role and the spartan confines of the stage.

Still, the depth and humor of the play's language and its rich veins of metaphysical conundrum and biblical allusion make the play an absorbing work to puzzle through even after the curtains have dropped. The work is timely too, with Obama's recent inauguration and the ushering out of the long-installed Bush regime. Macleod and Chastain fill their roles with force and fury, and several stirring soliloquies serve as both indicators of Berenger's enormous ego-last sighted sinking the Titanic-and more largely as commentary on the ephemeral nature of life. Through Berenger, we understand, fear and begin to come to terms with the agonizing solitude of man in facing down death alone. The ending, forecasted in the title, becomes a meditation on the idea that we can all "learn" how to die- that mortality can be at least shared and mourned together, the exit eased by those around you.

Tags: exit the king, live oak theatre, actor's ensemble of berkeley

Article Link: