New York City Theater
"Exit the King"
Ethel Barrymore Theater
It was wise old Ben Franklin who said, “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Eugène Ionesco’s “Exit the King” is all about death, but in the guise of a clown show. As adapted by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, this landmark in the Theater of the Absurd canon is a grim farce, a nightmare set in a grotesque circus landscape.
King Berenger is dying. After all, he’s lived hundreds of years, only to witness the deterioration of his kingdom – and, metaphorically, of Western Civilization. Now it’s time to go, and go he will by the time the play he’s in (we’re all in) finishes. As announced by his pragmatic first wife, Queen Marguerite, who tries in vain to quell the hysteria of his second wife, Queen Marie, “the signs are unmistakable.”
“Even the sun has stopped listening” and “the Milky Way seems to have curdled.” He is the king; he is us; he is Everyman. As his private world collapses, so does the physical one. Nothing’s to be done.
All this might sound lugubrious but as directed by Armfield with an eye towards both despair and hope and performed by a top-flight cast, it’s as hilarious as it is mysterious. Chief among the raconteurs is Rush, giving a memorable tragicomic performance as the king. Made up to look like an aging clown, Rush rants and rages, at one point marching about the stage like a demented puppet, complete with pratfalls. It is the compelling portrait of a man whose powers are ebbing but will do whatever he can to cling to life.
While Susan Sarandon’s Marguerite lacks imperiousness, Lauren Ambrose’s hysteria-ridden Marie is a precise creation of a woman as afraid of her own vanishing as she is of her husband’s. Andrea Martin, one of the stage’s inimitable treasures, is very funny as the put-upon maid-of-all-work. As the guard, Brian Hutchison is as antic as possible, considering he has to clank around in full armor, one of the riotous and frightening aspects of this extraordinary production.
David A. Rosenberg
April 19, 2009