Lauren Ambrose and Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King.
BOTTOM LINE: In a Broadway season with so much to choose from, this is one show that will stay with you for a long, long time.
While Eugene Ionesco is an incredibly important playwright, his Absurdist plays (The Chairs, The Bald Soprano, Rhinoceros) are not what one might think of as typical Broadway fare. Unfortunately, most of the plays (new or revivals) produced on Broadway tend to be similarly realistic in style, that is, “real” things happening to “real” characters. So for this reason alone, I was excited to see the new production of Exit the King, and intrigued to see how it played in the 1000+ seat Barrymore Theatre. While this was not as awe-inspiring as the version of Ionesco’s The Chairs that played in London and on Broadway in 1998, it was still a great production. It was extremely well-directed by Neil Armfield, who provides it with a few moments of true theatre magic.
I imagine that for some, Ionesco is one of those playwrights who is more of a vegetable than a dessert, you feel like you really should see an Ionesco play because you feel like its good for you, but you’d kind of rather go see Hair instead. So for those who want to want to see Exit the King, fear not, this production is a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a lot. If you’re worried that you won’t get the play, I don’t think that will be a problem at all. The premise is fairly simple: King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) rules a kingdom, and his kingdom is almost ruined, and the King is supposed to die fairly soon. But he doesn’t want to die. Unfortunately, he has to by the end of the play.
Of course, this simple premise contains within it many layers on which one can interpret the play. My friend turned to me during intermission and said “you know, I think this is a lot about perception," and I think he’s right. As much as the King is a king, he is also an “everyman” (and indeed, “Berenger” is an everyman character in several other Ionesco plays). We all must deal with questions of our own mortality and to a certain extent, we are all “kings”, in that we live at the center of our own lives (kingdoms), and control (or at least try to control) everything that happens in them. The King is each of us. But as this production hints at, the King can also be the government, or the nation, or President Bush, or any of a multitude of bankrupt (yet bailed-out) corporations. And this is what makes this play so enjoyable. You can watch and interpret it on so many levels, from physical humor to philosophical discussion.
Each member of the cast is great and they are all very different. These roles could so easily become one-note and cartoonish, yet the entire cast works hard to find the humanity in these characters, without sacrificing any opportunity to make the audience laugh. I always love Andrea Martin (last seen on Broadway in Young Frankenstein)...she was hilarious as the maid Juliette. Lauren Ambrose (best known for playing Claire on Six Feet Under) does a great job with the role of Queen Marie, the young queen who doesn’t want King Berenger to die. But it was the two “stars," Susan Sarandon and Geoffrey Rush, who gave what I thought were the two most memorable performances.
I’ll admit, for a large portion of the play, I wasn’t quite sure what Susan Sarandon (as the King’s first wife, Queen Marquerite) was doing because she seemed oddly out of place and too restrained for the hilarity and chaos that was happening all around her. I wanted her to be bitchier, more of a domineering matriarch than a voice of reason. Of course, her calm presence is the whole point, and this eventually becomes clear later in the play. Sarandon’s final monologue is stunning, and while I don’t want to describe it, I would tell anyone to see Exit the King simply to see this final scene. I have no doubt it will be one of my top theatrical moments of the year, and will remain in my head for a long time.
And Geoffrey Rush gives what is no doubt one of the best performances of the year. He is a lock for a Tony nomination, and may very well win the award in June. His King Berenger is hilarious and sad at the same time; tremendously physical (just watch what he does with his scepter!) while simultaneously reminding us that he is becoming more and more decrepit with every minute. Rush makes it clear that the King is clearly the energetic and emotional center of Ionesco’s play, as well he should be. For what it is worth, Rush and director Neil Armfield co-translated Ionesco’s text; I’d have to compare this to other translations, but I suspect that their version does a lot to make this Exit the King accessible to modern Broadway audiences.
The design aspects of the production are all great. The set and costumes are blatantly theatrical with large tapestries supported by clearly visible wires, and huge robes that are thrown all over the stage. And the lighting and sound work subtly, providing a feeling that the King’s death is inevitable. That is, except when they are most definitely NOT subtle...two memorable moments include a frantic chase scene lit with a strobe light and the King’s “procession” accompanied by a marching band.
Are there any downsides to this production? There were a few times the play seemed to drag (although maybe I was just tired) but hang in there because it is worth it. And the theatre was uncomfortably warm the night I went...I’m hoping that was just due to the change of seasons, but be prepared and dress accordingly. But while people go to theatre for different reasons, I think any even semi-serious theatergoer MUST see Exit the King. If you want a play that makes you think, see Exit the King. If you want a play that makes you laugh, see Exit the King. And if you want a play that makes you marvel at the unique power of the theatre, then see Exit the King.
(Exit the King plays at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St, through June 14th. The general performance schedule is Tue at 7 PM, Wed through Sat at 8 PM, and matinees on Wed and Sat at 2 PM, and Sun at 3 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Tickets are $66.50- $116.50, and $26.50 student rush tickets are available at the box office the day of the performance. Visit telecharge.com to buy tickets and exitthekingonbroadway.com for more information.)