In Ionesco’s play, society no longer makes sense — even to itself.
Exit the King by Eugène Ionesco. Translated from the French by Charles Marowitz and Donald Watson. Directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at Emerson Paramount Theater, Boston, MA through October 8.
By Ian Thal
A guard (Gunnar Manchester), dressed in a strange hybrid of a business jacket and gladiatorial gear (shin guards, gauntlets and a shoulder guard), strides to a podium – he is head of the palace’s security contingent, but he comes off as more of a master-of-ceremonies. He introduces the play’s cast of characters: King Berenger the First (Richard Snee), Berenger’s first wife, Queen Marguerite (Sarah Newhouse), their nurse and domestic help, Juliette (Rachel Belleman), Berenger’s second wife, Queen Marie (Jesse Hinson), and finally the “Gentleman Court Surgeon, Bacteriologist, Executioner and Astrologist” (Dayenne Walters).
Many critics have described Exit the King as Ionesco operating in a mode more akin to his contemporary and fellow expatriate absurdist Samuel Becket. Ionesco echoes Beckett’s thematic concerns — his protagonist undergoes the process of existential obliteration. But Ionesco’s own tendency is to be more explicitly political and surrealist in his imagery — and this tragicomedy is no exception.
Berenger has reigned over his kingdom for four-hundred years. If he is meant to be the same Berenger who serves as the protagonist in some of Ionesco’s other plays, this past has been long forgotten. He is disheveled, dressed in his pajama pants and an undershirt, a regal red dressing gown, and a paper crown. His scepter is an intravenous drip pole; tubes and saline bags hang across the top. His kingdom is in utter disrepair: innumerable ill-advised wars have shrunk his kingdom’s borders. Neglected, the land is eroding away; buildings as well as large swathes of land are collapsing through holes in the Earth’s crust. Marguerite reports that “At the start of his reign there were nine thousand million inhabitants.” (In 1962, when Ionesco wrote Exit the King, the world’s population was only about 3.1 billion). Now Berenger’s kingdom numbers “only about a thousand old people,” Marie clarifies that there are “forty-five young people”. Those young people are uneducable and age prematurely. The doctor suggests that the universe itself is approaching an entropic death, observing that “snow is falling on the North Pole of the sun. The Milky Way seems to be curdling.”
Those with long memories recall a time when, before he became infirm, the King wielded a divine will and could exert magical powers: he could compel action with but a word. Is the decay that is demolishing his body, his palace, his kingdom, and the cosmos meant to be understood as allegorical? Or his there a mythological message here? Is Ionesco retelling the legend of the Fisher King minus the grail? Or is this a futuristic tale of a dying Earth. Could it be that Berenger’s use of godlike powers exhausted the universe (a theme echoed a decade later in Michael Moorcock’s Dancers at the End of Time novels)?
Or is Exit the King a political parable about how dictators, whatever ideologies they cling to, whatever titles they accord themselves, might bring about the end of their own regimes through the abuse of the very powers they exercise? Perhaps, but the suggestion here is that waiting for a tyrannical regime to collapse also means passively watching the destruction they bring about. And there are no signs of rejuvenation in Ionesco’s vision — the universe is gone when the King dies.
Ionesco’s Dadaesque comedy is generated by the primal power of denial, inability of the palace’s inhabitants to grasp the enormity of the crisis in front of them. Berenger won’t dare face the consequences of his disastrous rule and his impending death. The guard cannot conceive of an existence beyond his ceremonial role. Juliette only knows of her toils as nurse and maid to these pampered and decadent royals. Rather than showing much concern about what he sees happening, the doctor revels in his knack to accurately describe physiological and cosmological collapse. Marie worries that, with the King’s demise, she will lose her celebrity status — her endless partying will come to an end. Marguerite, on the other hand, understands the reality of the situation. She is above and beyond terror because she knows that they are in a play, and that the curtain must fall with her husband’s death.
Snee’s comic chops are inspired by cartoon invulnerability; he takes pratfalls and then rises, alternately raging at and dismissing the news of his and his world’s dissolution. Yet he also suggests Berenger’s growing awareness that he must make some amends for his crimes, as when he sits and listens to Juliette’s account of her hardships. (Though he doesn’t really get the misery of the poor.) Newhouse is brilliantly deadpan as Marie – her snappy sarcastic tone underlines the sanity of a character who knows that the end of this world is a fiction. Belleman provides strong working-class presence; her singing voice is a treat. Walters puts in a delightfully eccentric performance as the doctor — every gesture, tilt of the head, every entrance and exit — is perfectly weird.
Director Dmitry Troyanovsky is playfully grotesque, as one should be, when dealing with Ionesco’s impish ridiculousness, and he nicely highlights the demented decadence of Berenger’s court: the trappings in the throne room are shiny and pristine, but they are strangely incongruous, a garish mix-match. This is a society that no longer makes sense, even to itself.
The palace room (designed by Cameron Anderson) is housed in a clear plastic tank. Its denizens sometimes graffiti on the walls with a dry-erase marker. There are some Vienna chairs, yellow balloons, and an ornate glass ballroom chandelier. The style? Aristocratic nineteenth century meets today’s corporate design meets an enfeebled grownup’s nostalgia for childhood birthday parties. Sound designer Arshan Gailus provides a fittingly celebratory score that combines electronica and the raki-soused horns of a Balkan band.
Olivera Gajic’s costumes are also anachronistic. She dresses Queen Marguerite in simple yet elegant outfits, the kind popularized by Jackie Kennedy in the early 1960s. She puts Queen Marie in a gown reminiscent of what Marilyn Monroe might have worn as well. The doctor, meanwhile, is dressed in a smartly tailored gray suit (not the pointed hat and hooded cloak specified in the script).
Given the despicable madness of our current political culture — and the alarming momentum of Climate Change — Ionesco’s grotesque vision of the world winding down in circus fashion has never been more relevant, and this production does him justice.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report