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A CurtainUp Review
Exit the King
By Elyse Sommer
While often compared to Beckett, Ionesco is known but rarely seen while Beckett gains new fans each season. Even during what might be considered his heyday, the 1960s, only two of Ionesco's full length plays made it to Broadway, both with a leading character named Berenger. The first and most famous was Rhinoceros which premiered in 1960. The lesser known was Exit the King which premiered in 1962. While Rhinoceros has popped up on Off-Broadway stages several times since, including the Untitled Theater Company's contribution to this month's Ionesco Festival (See links below). The Pearl Theater Company's revival of Exit the King marks the first New York production in over thirty years; a rare opportunity for New Yorkers to check out whether the first half of its tragi-comedy label still moves and the second half retains its wit.
The play has a coming-to-realize plot, with an ending that holds no surprises since the outcome is announced right at the beginning. Its central character, King Berenger the First, must face that he is as mortal as the citizens of the unnamed country that he has misruled into a state of unspeakable disarray. Its uniqueness rests with Ionesco's farcical depiction of the king and his topsy-turvy kingdom and the door it opens to directorial flights of fancy.
The Pearl's production features a solid translation by Donald Watson that retains the playwright's many quotable one liners. Director Joseph Hardy has neatly trimmed the usual two hours to an intermissionless ninety minutes. However, with our own real world so recently turned upside down, what is especially needed is a masterly farceur's touch to get fully caught up in the manic humor of King Berenger's final exit. As if anticipating the events of September 11th, director Hardy and his cast have opted for a more straightforward, almost stolid interpretation.
To give the play an up-to-date relevancy, the throne room is now a royal executive suite. The king (Robert Hock) is an incompetent executive whose trophy wife has added to his delusion that he is at the top of his form and can choose the time when he will die. When he gets the equivalent of a pink slip in the form of an announcement from his first queen stating that he will be dead by the end of the play, he does not go quietly and gracefully into the world beyond but desperately tries to argue his way out of his unanticipated fate.
Unfortunately, neither the leather chair throne or any of the other stage elements are fanciful or inventive enough to make the farce fly. The same is true of the performancess.
The five actors who comprise the ensemble deliver their lines with clarity: Robert Hock as King Berenger, the First; Carol Schultz as his dour first wife, Queen Marguerite; Celeste Ciulla as the hopeful and loving young Queen Marie; Sue Jin Song as Juliette, the servant and symbol of the mistreated citizenry; Ray Virta as the Doctor who, like the battle axe Queen, is full of judgmental proclamations; Michael Nichols as the Guard of one-person army who announces each step in the king's journey from arrogant egotism to awareness, if not acceptance, of the inevitable. What's missing in all is the the gifted farceur's fluffy soufflé touch.
Robert Hock comes close to magnificent by the time he is humbled and finally aware of life, but he is much less successful in the portion of this deathwatch that calls for a more clownish Berenger. Carol Schultz, who in past roles played at the Pearl has demonstrated considerable comic flair, is here more harsh than hilarious so that even the most amusing bits of word play tend to cause titters rather than big laughs -- as when Marguerite taunts Marie about the end of her fun days with "This is the end of your high teas, your strip tease"
The Pearl Theater Company, like all the participants in the Ionesco Festival, deserves our thanks for removing the dust motes of neglect from some these plays. Exit the King contains at least a screenful of sharp, memorable observations which, coupled with the fact that it may be another thirty years before you have a chance to see it again, make a strong case for seeing this painfully revelant revival.
The Ionesco Festival