Story: King Berenger the 1st is running out of time. After hundreds of years of iron-clad rule over his kingdom, including Mother Nature herself, his majesty is informed by the palace physician that he is going to die by the end of this two-act play. The doctor is almost giddy about the news, and why not? The countryside is in decay, the castle is in ruins and the population has shrunk from the hundreds of millions to about a thousand, according to Queen Marguerite, the king’s first wife.
Marguerite is there to reassure Berenger that it’s the natural order of things for him to go into that good night, but he’ll have none of that. After all, his second wife, the much younger Queen Marie, dotes on his every move, eyes wide with love and admiration, notwithstanding the fact that the king has killed legions of citizens as well as soldiers from warring countries in his long life. Slowly but inexorably Berenger begins to collapse, physically and mentally, while the lone palace guard stands loyal watch and the servant staff of one, Juliette, does her chores when she’s in the mood. My kingdom for a hearse, Berenger might say.
Highlights: One of absurdist dramatist Eugene Ionesco’s best-known works is this bizarre comedy that looks at the inevitability of death through a prism that mocks the life that precedes it. Ionesco was in the vanguard of the 20th century’s absurdist camp that took its lead from Samuel Beckett, and Exit the King presents prime time for cynics and scoffers in cruelly comic style.
West End Players Guild closes its 2011-12 season with a serviceable rendering of this dark farce led by winning portrayals of the venal King Berenger and his long-suffering and superior first queen, Marguerite, by Robert Ashton and Nancy Crouse, as well as a splendidly satiric turn by David Gibbs as the campy quack.
Other Info: Director Renee Sevier-Monsey keeps the mood appropriately off-kilter throughout the play’s two acts, although pacing begins to be a problem in the last 15 minutes or so as Ionesco drags out his inevitable conclusion. Regardless, the hijinks and goofy banter engaged in by the cast bring out the essential futility of the work and also what the author saw as the absurdity of life itself.
Ashton marvelously inhabits the nasty ruler’s psyche, showing us his greed, selfishness and shallowness with a grand, empty flair that is obvious and unappealing, just as is Berenger. Crouse beautifully modulates Marguerite’s intellectual approach to easing her ex-husband into his departure, trying to eke out some nobility in his bankrupt soul while also dispassionately putting his affairs in order right in front of him. Gibbs serves admirably as the castle clown, sometimes an astrologer, sometimes an executioner, sometimes a physician with a dreadful bedside manner, but always indifferent to the circumstances.
Bridget Barisonek is appropriately vacuous and starry-eyed as Berenger’s adoring and youthful Queen Marie, ever present to bolster his ego as well as his degenerating body. Liana Kopchak and Reginald Pierre provide amusing support as the wise-cracking servant and dimwitted guard, respectively.
Berenger is given credit for introducing many of society’s technological improvements of the last several centuries in the ongoing eulogy spouted by the remaining members of his kingdom, but it’s all for naught. He’s soon to be history himself, something lighting designer Amy Ruprecht hauntingly illustrates with her pinpoint lighting design that gradually diminishes before totally fading away.
Ken Clark’s set is appropriately cartoonish to match the tone of the work and the production, and Jean Heckmann’s costumes cleverly bring attention to the various characters, including pajamas for the declining ruler, ever-ready surgical garb for the doctor, and flowing robes for the queens. Leonard Marhsell adds the supportive sound design.
“I’ll die when it suits me,” boasts Berenger at one point. In the end, though, the playwright has the final word as his squalid title character is silenced at last.
Play: Exit the King
Group: West End Players Guild
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: April 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $20; contact 367-0025 or WestEndPlayers.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb