Professional productions of absurdist plays are not quite as rare as snow in South Florida, but they’re pretty scarce. Palm Beach Dramaworks put together a highly praised production of Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs in 2008, and now it has returned to the work of that masterful playwright with Exit the King.
Translated by Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush and Australian director Neil Armfield (the team whose version of Nicolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman was done at Plantation’s now-defunct Mosaic Theatre last fall), the play is the third in Ionesco’s “Berenger Cycle.” The 1962 original follows 1958’s The Killer and 1959’s Rhinoceros, with 1963’s A Stroll in the Air closing out the cycle.
Even for those who regard theater of the absurd as mind boggling, Exit the King is an amusing, provocative and ultimately moving play. Its story is linear and, thanks to a pronouncement by Queen Marguerite (Angie Radosh) early on, the audience — as well as the titular monarch — knows exactly how long the production will last.
King Berenger (Colin McPhillamy), a self-absorbed and childish tyrant who is allegedly 400 years old, has been diagnosed as terminal by his doctor (Rob Donohoe). Marguerite, regarded as an annoyance by a king besotted with his younger wife Queen Marie (Claire Brownell), informs her difficult husband that he will be dead by the end of the play. Then she tells him exactly how many more minutes he has to live, periodically updating the countdown.
While this could backfire — if you’re less than enthralled with the show, you may find yourself looking repeatedly at your watch — for most in the audience (especially those who don’t know the play), the device enhances engagement and suspense. How many minutes have ticked away? Will this demented, demanding yet oddly likeable king really die?
Director William Hayes and assistant director Lynette Barkley have put together a production that embraces broad comedy and dramatic jolts. Michael Amico’s set suggests regal digs gone to ruin, because the palace is as wrecked as the rest of the kingdom. Sound designer Matt Corey and lighting designer John Hall immeasurably enrich and define King Berenger’s world. Leslye Menshouse’s costumes underscore the production’s playfulness, most pointedly in the way the king is decked out: a fur-edged vest and train over wrinkled pajamas, his crown plopped atop a fiery red wig.
McPhillamy, whose Berenger roams the audience telling hoary jokes before the show begins, is complex and brilliant as a man who refuses to accept his inevitable end. His loss of power and reason are funny, then unsettling. And the play’s final image is truly stunning.
Radosh brings imperiousness and compassion to Marguerite, two qualities that are beyond Brownell’s Marie, a woman who is as childlike as her much older husband. Donohoe, Elizabeth Dimon’s bustling maid-nurse and Jim Ballard’s goofy guard deliver deft performances that underscore the production’s tone.
Perhaps theater of the absurd isn’t done often in South Florida because artistic directors are afraid there’s scant appetite for it. But in staging this accessible Ionesco play, Hayes and Dramaworks have given theater fans yet another invaluable chance to watch the wondrous McPhillamy work his magic.