|Photo by Tracy Martin.
“It is your duty to die with dignity,” one of the King’s court
proclaims. Eugene Ionesco’s Absurdist drama Exit the King leaves no
question about its ending. Even the title tells us what to expect.
Actors Ensemble of Berkeley has produced a viable but not especially
compelling mounting of this difficult play. The staging and production
values measure up to the minimal material, but the sincerity of the
actors falls short of the playwright’s intentions. But it’s okay. The
meat of this densely profound play still offers a lot to chew on. It is
always worth seeing one more interpretation of this tale of compassion
King Berenger (Norman Macleod) has it drummed
into his head that he will soon die. One of his Queens, who claims he
is four-hundred years old, predicts his death to the second and says to
him, “You’re going to die at the end of this show.” That much is
certain. Even The Doctor (Alecks Rundell) predicts the death as factual
and declares, “His majesty is officially blind.” His kingdom and his
power are leaving him. His Queens, his princess Juliette (Melanie
Curry) and his drunken, furry-capped Guard (Jose Garcia, also Stage
Manager) all desert him eventually.
Ionesco wrote this 1962 play
after he personally had a vastation experience (cf. William James,
father of Henry) when during illness he confronted his own mortality.
With hints of Shakespeare’s Lear, the King’s realm is crumbling and he
has lost the power to control his surroundings as well as his physical
capabilities. The play is linear, unusual for Ionesco and for Absurdism
in general. The story arc takes us from scenes where the King is
reminded of his appointment with destiny to scenes where all his
supposedly trusted companions desert him one by one. Finally, he
realizes dying is something he must do alone.
The play itself is
stark and severe, but this production provides an amusing mixture of
light-heartedness and gravity. The set in the relatively small Live Oak
Theatre is minimal and unobtrusive, using flattened cardboard cartons
as backdrops to the thrones, with an interesting touch at the end.
Scholars and pedants adore the literary value of Ionesco and Beckett —
whose works this play most closely resemble — but actors do not like
the lines. The cast and director of this show meander in and out of the
meanings of the script, not an unusual occurrence. Despite what some
might think about Absurdism, the theatrical technique offers much
involvement and meaning. Strident tones and lack of tension accompany
the largely static staging here. The use of conversational
call-response dialog is a demonstrable lack of belief in the lines
themselves. This is tough material. Actors Ensemble bravely attacked it
and did a great job. My feeling is that the Absurdists will not be
fully understood for a few more decades.
Exit the King will be
performing through Feb. 21 at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Avenue,
Berkeley. Tickets ($10 to $12) are available by phone at (510) 649-5999
and at www.aeofberkeley.org.