Actors' Shakespeare Project has kicked off its fall lineup, themed "The Downfall of Despots," with a play about a delusional, fact-denying leader who has run his kingdom into the ground. Decide for yourself why that might be, but Exit the King, Eugène Ionesco's rarely performed 1962 absurdist comedy about a 400-year-old king's final 90 minutes on earth, turns out to be both the funniest and most insightful production of this new theater season. Though Ionesco felt that politics should be kept off the stage, it's hard to imagine a better way to challenge his thinking than with Dmitry Troyanovsky's splendidly stylish revival, now playing through October 8.
The kingdom is in decay, floods occur everywhere, snow is falling on the sun, and trees are dying. King Berenger (a sensational Richard Snee) hasn't exactly done a good job. There were nine thousand million inhabitants at the start of his reign, and the population has dwindled down to less than one thousand. The next one to go, it seems, will be Berenger himself.
Berenger's doctor — who also happens to serve as a surgeon, bacteriologist, executioner, and astrologist — has determined that the king is dying and will be dead by the end of the play. (An amusing, transformative Dayenne Walters plays the doctor.) Queen Marguerite, Berenger's first wife, is pragmatic about the whole thing and insists that Berenger should be given the news straightaway so that he can begin to methodically prepare for what's to come. Played with icy perfection by Sarah Newhouse, Marguerite is at odds with Queen Marie — Berenger's current wife (in a gender-bending turn by Jesse Hinson), who is inconsolably bathed in tears and would rather the news be delivered "tactfully, with great tact."
Marguerite — who, according to the king, has a mania for disagreeable conversation in the morning — breaks the news to him. Of course he'll die, he says, when he's got the time. His prognosis, he demurs, is nothing more than fake news, and besides, even if he were about to die, surely he could, as king, order himself healed. But as time runs out for Berenger, he is stripped away, steadily, of his power, his mind, and ultimately, his senses.
While Ionesco is said to have written Exit the King as a means of coming to terms with his own mortality, the play takes on a different light given the world's current political climate. But despite its political implications, the play does not sting with righteousness or condemnation, and the modern lens through which we watch the play does not sacrifice its preoccupation with mortality, though it frequently trumps it in terms of sheer entertainment value.
And what entertainment it is. Along with a stellar cast, Troyanovsky's production is divinely scrumptious, creating a hazy atmosphere that hovers somewhere between drunken decadence and groggy hangover. It seems to take place both now and never, here and nowhere. A glass cube outlined in fluorescent lights sits center stage, limiting the playing area and subtly giving the tale a contemporary flair. An elegant chandelier dangles from above, and a terrific gold fringe curtain spans the length of the stage (set by Cameron Anderson). The design elements are flawless, including Olivera Gajic's modern-tinged costumes, Dan Jentzen's precise lighting, and Arshan Gailus's efficacious sound.
With its implicit warnings of the dangers of political excess, Exit the King hits close to home.
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