Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Exit The King
Also see Richard's review of Conversations with an Executioner
Everyone involved seems to be bright and talented (in some cases, extremely bright and talented), but the whole thing never gets off the ground till the very end, when Nancy Crouse (as the "First Queen") ably takes things in hand. Till then, there's nothing at stake: nothing ever really plunges off a cliff, or soars into the wild blue yonderlet alone both at once. There are at least a dozen nice little laughs (that's about one laugh for every eight languid minutes), but none of the misguided grandeur, set against human frailty, that we've come to expect from Absurdism. Eugene Ionesco, the playwright, would probably say the most absurd people in the whole production are actually sitting in the audience, trapped in the dark with their shattered expectations and their exasperated sighs.
What's it all about? My guess is that we're witnessing the unraveling of Western Civilization under the perpetual threat of a sudden, random nuclear holocaust. But who knows, really? The king (the usually splendid Robert Ashton) is variously credited with all the great accomplishments of modern human ingenuity, and his age is variously estimated at up to 1,600 years, or possibly greater. But here, somehow, even with the thoughtful Renee Sevier-Monsey directing, everything is played at face value, with none of the comic misdirection of great passions over small things. There is no "mad tea party." There should be minuets (or, at least, failed minuets) and royal, rhetorical fireworks (or, at least, red-faced fulminations). Theatrically speaking, there should be a sea full of crashing waves. But there is only a tide-pool of talented actors standing around, seemingly still impressed with their newly acquired royal garb on stage.
So, working from the outside in, if it's really about nuclear geo-politics, there should be arbitrary, meaningless wars between the characters, and prideful boasting and conspiracies and ghastly twists of fate, and the like, acted out like mad at every random opportunity, action thrown around as improv. It should be scary and bizarre and hilarious. Instead (that final scene with the first queen notwithstanding), a sort of frozen tableau of actors exchange bland pronouncements and proclamations, until they simply run out of script.
Even the brash, brainy David Gibbs comes off as a merely mildly kooky Groucho Marx in appearance, which adds a whole 'nother layer of frustration, as there's nothing to back up the mustachioed implication of mayhem. It's excruciating, if you happen to know how much sheer talent is going to waste. Ionesco himself had no idea how many tempests would crash in my own soul, watching this particular production. Maybe that's the highest compliment of all: "if you are well-acquainted with St. Louis theater, life will never seem more absurd than these two endless, frozen hours."
In the story, the land is under a curse: whole universities sink into the earth; whole constellations disappear from the heavens, and most of the people of the kingdom have fled. Societal vision is destroyed, which is an interesting conceptbut the actors themselves cannot afford to follow suit, because the play must have a vision, where (for example) all passion and energy is poured into bad investments. Regrettably, it all seems to be played out in an opium den instead.
Until, that is, Nancy Crouse finally steps up to bat, wonderfully, gently ushering the king into his final moments, into his final spiritual release from this world. But, wait a minutemaybe everyone else in the cast saw how she developed and rose above the ennui, and (consciously or not) followed suit. Maybe Ms. Crouse isn't just the glorious solution to the whole problem of the playmaybe she's the problem, too! Wouldn't that be absurd? What if everyone is only following her, like a school of minnows, as she goes off in her own sardonic direction ... and only she escapes the play's grinding failure, because Ionesco has given her the best, most theatrical and romantic scene at the end? But that's just a fanciful notion, on my part. Or, Nancy Crouse is the greatest evil genius of our time.
The rest of this (potentially wonderful) cast needs someone to scream at them. Each of their own greatest scenes should be elsewhere in the play, in the bomb shelters of their souls in this, our own particular bomb shelter of an economy. And Mr. Ashton (as the king) needs to scream at everyone, like a TV host, on a whim. Maybe his "crown" should (once or twice) be the empty shell of a boxy old TV set, and everyone could fight over the remote control now and then. Maybe his crown could be five different things (up to, and perhaps including Carmen Miranda's tutti-frutti hat), since they all make such a fuss over it. But he, and everyone (with the ultimate exception of Ms. Crouse and the consistently fine Reginald Pierre, as a fierce young sentry) just lolls around, in overt surrender.
For God's sake, dare to show off. Make the play matter.
Through April 22, 2012, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, on Union, about two blocks north of Delmar. A modest parking lot out back provides more suspense than this play, but is always safe, in my experience. For more information visit them on-line at www.westendplayers.org
Photo by John C. Lamb