For the week of January 29, 2009
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Le Roi Est Mort; Vive Le Roi!
By Albert Goodwyn
Published: January 29, 2009

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 and hopelessness.

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.

 
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