Exit the King @ Ethel Barrymore Theatre , New York

cast list
Lauren Ambrose, Brian Hutchison, Andrea Martin, Geoffrey Rush, William Sadler, Susan Sarandon

directed by
Neil Armfield
That the Theatre of the Absurd somehow seems less so forty-odd years on likely stems from the simple passage of time since the heydays of writers the likes of Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and the recently deceased Harold Pinter.

We as audience members have slowly become desensitized to strange conceits. Is there any lingering shock and awe to be found in seeing a woman buried up to her waist – and, later, to her head – in sand, as in Beckett’s Happy Days, which premiered in 1960? Or in Ionesco’s titular Rhinoceros stomping on-stage? Or in Pinter’s bizarre, symbolic The Homecoming?

Nowadays, these plays are staged with reverence, the consensus having arisen in the years since their premieres that these absurdist plays are classics, or at the very least least classics in the making.
Exactly what is it that keeps theatre artists – and audiences – coming back to absurdist plays? Director Neil Armfield and actor Geoffrey Rush are currently providing an answer in the form of their jarring, stunning revival of the widely neglected Exit the King, one of absurdist master Eugene Ionescos boldest, most arresting plays even nearly a half century after its French language premiere in 1962.

The conceit of Ionescos play is clever and macabre. The 400-year-old King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) is on his last limbs, about to tumble headfirst into death. You are going to die at the end of the play, Berengers first wife Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) explains early in the play, establishing a precedence of morbidity that bubbles over as the play thrusts forward through a series of comic and tragic highs and lows. But Berenger remains oblivious, seemingly content to reign over his domain forever despite the subtle, menacing changes that seem to be arising all around him.

As the play begins, the guard exclaims that “the radiators are fucked,” but that’s small potatoes compared to everything else that’s wrong in King Berenger’s land. The sun’s stopped listening to reason. The abyss is moving in ever closer. Irreversible changes are afoot. Fall can become winter within a day, and planets collide. And its all because King Berenger refused to fortify his land as Marguerite had insisted.

To top it all off, Berengers sense of proportion is all off. “Maybe I’m growing,” Berenger exclaims, realizing, on the verge of death, that his slippers are a tad small. “Why was I born if it wasn’t going to be forever?” Berenger asks. Obviously he’s in denial.

His current wife, the young Queen Marie, may cling to his physical presence, but like it or not, he’s bound to die, and it’s Marguerite, the older and wiser of the queens, who is ultimately called upon to ease his pain as he loses his senses one by one in a haunting extended monologue.

As King Berenger (one of Ionesco’s recurring autobiographical characters), Geoffrey Rush is a ghastly, clownish vision, traipsing and dancing about the stage with a wobbly, decrepit gait, dressed in his pajamas and a regal fur-lined cape, his sunken eyes dark like a raccoon’s. It’s a marvelous, must-see performance, enhanced by Rush’s comic sensibilities. He knows when to make an audience laugh and when to pull back and explore his character’s complexities; his is one of the most luminous performances on the New York stage this year.

Susan Sarandon supplies winning support in the relatively thankless role of Queen Marguerite, with Lauren Ambrose suitably over-the-top as royal party girl Queen Marie, her arms outstretched like an attention-seeking hippie as she expounds on existential concepts of reality. Andrea Martin also provides a funny turn as Berenger’s domestic servant, the wide-eyed Juliette.

As adaptors, Rush and Armfield have brought the play, which is being seen in New York after a previous run in Australia, into the twenty-first century, adding a reference to antidepressants and subtly heightening, through word choice, the political relevance of the play, which is all the more timely as our own recently departed leader of eight years fades into memory.

The primary brilliance of the play, however, as supported by this magnificent production, is in its perfect tragicomic pacing. Though, off the bat, the play is a nonstop laugh riot, eventually, as Rush’s portrayal of Berenger warps and deepens, the play slowly becomes an excoriating examination of human existence and death. The comedy on display is mined from the grotesquesness of overstated reality, from the individual truths we all experience as we ourselves begin to consider our own place in the cosmic scheme of things.

At one point, not long before the play’s haunting final gasp (a stage moment to be remembered), Berenger’s servant Juliette, having been asked about her life by the king, exclaims, “Life isn’t beautiful.” Without hesitation Berenger replies, “But it’s life.”

This, ultimately, is what the play is about – our continuance as a species despite all obstacles and without knowing for certain what life is. For a play about such weighty topics, it’s a wonder Exit the King manages to please an audience as much as it does (and it does).

That we’re laughing through the pain and pained through the laughter should be credited not only to Rush and this challenging new production but to Eugene Ionesco, whose work, absent too long from Broadway stages, ultimately rewards.

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