Also see John's review of Sweeney Todd
In Exit The King, Berenger the First (Colin McPhillamy) appears as a depressed and belligerent king faced with the painful reality of his own mortality and the decline of his kingdom. According to his first wife Queen Marguerite (Angie Radosh) he is over four hundred years old, and is informed at the start of the play that he is dying. Once he was supposedly able to command nature, and force others to obey his will, but now those days are gone. Though he is in denial of his death, and refuses to give up power, throughout the play he slowly loses his physical and mental abilities. Queen Marguerite and the Doctor (Rob Donohoe) try to make Berenger face the stark reality of his impending death, while Berenger's second wife, Queen Marie (Claire Brownell), attempts to comfort and shield him from the inevitable. The flawed and errant King bargains and pleads for more time as he has done before, but there is none left for him. At the end of the play the now speechless King is left with only Marguerite, who eases him toward his passing as he relinquishes all earthly ties, finally disappearing into darkness.
In order to best understand and truly appreciate Exit The King one should know something about the absurdist style in which it is written. Theatre of the Absurd is a term coined in 1962 by the critic and scholar Martin Esslin in a book of the same name. In Esslin's words, absurdist theatre "strives to express its sense of the senselessness of the human condition and the inadequacy of the rational approach by the open abandonment of rational devices and discursive thought". More simply put, their works shared the themes of alienation and the difficulty of communication. The leaders of the absurdist movement, which rose after World War II, were Samuel Beckett (Ireland), Eugene Ionesco (Romania), Jean Genet (France), Arthur Adamov (Russia) and Harold Pinter (England). All but Pinter (who considered himself a realist not an absurdist) lived in Paris and wrote in French.
Colin McPhillamy (King Berenger) wanders through the audience before the show, heartily greeting audience members and offering a bawdy joke or two. His both childlike and childish energy is oddly matched by a seemingly stern Queen Marguerite who informs him that he will die at the end of the play, even telling him exactly how many minutes that will be. McPhillamy goes through his stages of denial artfully. Despite the potentially off-putting nature of absurdist theatre, he skillfully finds the humor of each moment and the vulnerability of Berenger as everyman. The picture of him sprawled across the throne with his fire engine red hair and crooked crown can not help but make one smile. This play would flounder in the hands of a less skilled actor.
The most memorable moment is the final scene, with Angie Radosh as Queen Marguerite gently beckoning Berenger to allow death to come. The staging combined with her lovely countenance and calm, and nearly seductive voice paint her as if some elegant siren from Greek mythology.
Director William Hayes seems to provide a playful spin on the play that makes it more palatable. There is the bumbling Guard (Jim Ballard) loudly thumping his staff, and the the somewhat surly domestic help Juliette (Beth Dimon) who delivers lines straight out to the audience. Exaggerated costuming, like the exceedingly long trains on the dresses of the queens, almost bring a children's theatre feel to the setting of a play that is anything but children's theatre. Understandably, theatre of the absurd is not for everyone, but this production of Ionesco's examination of the human condition is absurdism at is very best.
The Palm Beach Drama Works production of Exit The King will be appearing at Don & Ann Brown Theatre through April 28, 2013. Palm Beach Drama Works is a professional not-for-profit theatre company hiring local and non-local Equity and non-Equity actors and actresses. Their goal is to engage and entertains audiences with provocative and timeless productions that personally impact each individual. The theatre is located at 201 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, FL 33401. For tickets and information you may reach them by phone at 561-514-4042, or online at www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.
*Indicates a member of Actor's Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Photo: Alicia Donelan