BWW Review: EXIT THE KING: Desperate Despot
Exit the King
Written by Eugene Ionesco, Directed by Dmitry Troyanovsky; Set Design, Cameron Anderson; Costume Designer, Olivera Gajic; Lighting Designer, Dan Jentzen; Sound Designer, Arshan Gailus; Stage Manager, Rafi Levavy; Production Manager, Deb Sullivan
Performances through October 8 by Actors' Shakespeare Project at Black Box Theatre at Emerson Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA; Box Office: 617-824-8400 or www.emersonparamount.org
Actors' Shakespeare Project opens its 14th season, "The Downfall of Despots," with a comedy about a narcissistic despot who is having difficulty accepting his mortality. His wives, his physician, and his advisers all try to convince him that his death is imminent - to occur within about ninety minutes, as a matter of fact - but he is having none of it. As his kingdom crumbles around him, 400-year old King Berenger refuses to let go of any control, or of his life, scrambling for a way to extend his reign and his time on the planet. Instead of making his remaining minutes matter, to make amends for the devastation he has wrought, the ruler childishly whines, wheedles, and whimpers in his efforts to keep the party going. No sacrifice by his subjects is too great to request to buy him more time.
Eugene Ionesco wrote Exit the King in 1962 during a struggle with illness in his own life. Apparently obsessed with death, the playwright uses Berenger as a stand-in for himself, albeit a caricature, and as a vehicle to explore the experience of dying. However, Ionesco enhances the complexity of the story by inserting politics; would we have greater empathy for what Berenger is going through if he were not the ruler, and a clownish, dictatorial one at that, who believes that everything must die when he expires? Chances are we would, but it is difficult to empathize with a man whose world is all about him, especially given the zeitgeist of 2017 America.
Director Dmitry Troyanovsky has the good fortune to work with a stellar ensemble, lead by the inimitable Richard Snee in a nuanced performance as the dying ruler of the broken kingdom, and Sarah Newhouse (Queen Marguerite) and Jesse Hinson (Queen Marie) as his two dissimilar wives. The latter, in an amusing gender-reversal portrayal, coyly tells the King what he wants to hear to remain in his good graces and help keep her meal ticket's ticker ticking. Newhouse is the no-nonsense first wife, the real power behind the throne who believes in tough love and has little patience with the junior Queen. Bowing and scraping by Marguerite's side is the royal surgeon/executioner/bacteriologist/astrologist, all hilariously brought to life by Dayenne Walters. Rounding out the cast are Rachel Belleman, very convincing as Juliette, the put-upon domestic help/nurse, and Gunnar Manchester, both stoic and subservient as the King's one and only guard.
Set designer Cameron Anderson suggests the King's throne room with a clear, cube-shaped enclosure supported by chrome poles and open in the front. The upstage wall is draped with a curtain of golden streamers, a crystal chandelier hangs in the center of the cube, and the floor is littered with balloons. A row of chairs flanks the exterior of the cube on each side, and the guard is positioned at a small pedestal table with a laptop in front of him and a keyboard behind him. Lighting designer Dan Jentzen's frequent cues change with the mood and the situation, and sound designer Arshan Gailus amplifies announcements by the guard and provides eclectic musical selections ranging from disco to sour marching band to ethereal. Olivera Gajic dresses the King in a floor-length, crimson bathrobe, striped pajama bottoms, white undershirt, and a bright yellow, multi-pointed crown. Marie's chartreuse, strapless, multi-tiered gown stands out for its garishness, in contrast to Marguerite's conservative, Jackie O stylings.
One cannot help but draw inferences from ASP's Exit the King, that this play was chosen at this time to help us look at our real-life woes in the context of a very humorous, almost absurd piece of theater. Berenger is an inept leader who brainwashes his subjects and spreads "alternative facts" when he engages in self-promotion. There is little action in the play, the focus being on characters and language. We see how much words matter when the King's commands fall on deaf ears, hastening the disintegration of his kingdom, yet powerless to stop his own demise. Ionesco portrays not only the death of a man, but also the death of power, leaving us to fill the vacuum.