Regional Reviews: Boston
Exit the King
You see, the king has learned he's going to die. What a foolish notion, he insists; he will depart this world on his own terms. This king ascended to the throne 277 years ago, and he insists he'll hold out for another 40, 50, even 300 years, once he's firmly made up his mind. But death won't wait. The queen issues the verdict: he will die at the end of the show.
Don't worry, Eugène Ionesco's Exit the King does not require any spoiler alert. The king's fate is decreed minutes into Ionesco's paean to death. And it's not just him, but the whole kingdom. Wars have destroyed the land and shrunk its borders; the birth rate has plummeted to zero. Where millions once lived, less than a thousand old people remainand they won't live much longer either. King Berenger the First refuses to believe it, and his second (current) wife, the youthfully glamorous Queen Marie, reassures him of his vitality. But his first wife, the regal Queen Marguerite, knows he will die and delights in telling him. "Marguerite, you have a mania for disagreeable conversation early in the morning," he responds.
Actors' Shakespeare Project steps outside their Elizabethan comfort zone for a lively take on Ionesco's absurdist comic tragedy, first produced in 1962 and recently revived in 2009 to acclaim on Broadway with Geoffrey Rush. In director Dmitry Troyanovsky's hands, Exit the King is a sweet and manic meditation on the transition from life to death, that finite moment when everything abruptly ends. All six actors remain onstage the whole show, forced to play-act the king's remaining ninety minutes amid the wreckage of a debaucherous party (balloons and champagne bottles). Instead of a proper throne, most scenes are played inside a large plexiglass box, a stage within a stage (created by set designer by Cameron Anderson) that offers no place to hide. Though the revelry is done, The Guard (the suave Gunnar Manchester, a bouncer in bike shorts) DJs the night away. Now and then, Ionesco is paused for a dance breaka desperate encore or two before the ship finally sinks.
There's a lot of brooding and philosophizing on the way to the king's grave. Ionesco's repeated death knell is sharp-witted but also maddeningly repetitive. (Curiously, Actors' Shakespeare Project does not credit the translator.) It's a joy, then, to have the superb Richard Snee lead this company as King Berenger. There's a spring in his step; he's adept at the king's clownishness, and he makes a feast of his diminishing physicality in a series of repeated pratfalls. As his bawdy humor gives way to despair, Snee's vocal timbre drops to a rich basso, and his final scenes are poignant as he comes to accept the end.
Alongside him, Sarah Newhouse is highly entertaining as a Queen Marguerite with deliciously haughty airs, clad in sunglasses and a shapely red bob like an old-fashioned movie star. In her final audience with the king, Newhouse is suddenly softer, more gracious, as she eases him into death. The young Queen Marie is cast gender-blind with the fit Jesse Hinson, whose optimism seems poised for a breakdown any minute. I enjoyed Rachel Belleman as the no-nonsense Juliette, the palace maid, servant, and nurse who is supremely bored with the menial work she's resigned to. Then there's Dayenne Walters' sinister Doctor, her shoulders slumped and head cocked sideways like a preternatural Igor.
Troyanovsky's director's notes allude to our current political climate, and it's a relief to say the production itself doesn't strain to make any overt parallels. Watching Exit the King one might feel restless and think, "When will he die already? They just keep talking about it!" But as Marie says to the king, "exist and die are just words, figments of our imagination." The whole play is merely words, fighting for reason and sense in an increasingly ridiculous world.
Exit the King is presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project through October 8, 2017, in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Paramount Center, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA, 02111. Tickets are $25-$55and can be purchased at actorsshakespeareproject.org, or by phone at (617) 824-8400, or in person at the Paramount box office.