Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 26, 2009
Exit the King Written by Eugene Ionesco. Adapted by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush. Directed by Neil Armfield. Scenic and costume design by Dale Ferguson. Lighting design by Damien Cooper. Sound design by Russell Goldsmith. Composer John Rodgers. Based on a production originally commissioned and produced by Company B and Malthouse Melbourne. Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Susan Sarandon, with Lauren Ambrose, William Sadler, Brian Hutchison, and Andrea Martin.
Not only do Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield - respectively the star and director, and co-translators - revere no identifiable taboos in depicting Berenger's withering into eternity, they're also not satisfied focusing on merely one man's demise. After all, we know from the opening minutes how he and the play will end. So in their conception, which could be vaguely approximated as vaudevillian but more accurately termed total, it's just as important that Western Civilization, the Earth, and God Himself also have their heads on the chopping block.
Rush and Armfield savor, more than is usual with this play (which was written in 1963 and produced on Broadway in 1968), the lead up to the swinging of the (metaphorical) axe in the play's waning seconds. They highlight, with Ionesco's absurdity and their own modern neon pens, the basic point that ultimately nothing survives. But they don't ignore, as some productions do, the farcical undertones that make the play more bewitching than bleak. This Exit the King, based on one originally produced in Australia in 2007, is one of the most riotous shows New York has seen this season. And why not? Once the adapters scream that everything goes, anything goes.
So they violate every imaginable theatrical convention, from scenery to strobe lights, from emotion-laden dance interludes to on-the-go narration, from the cell phone announcement to the curtain call. A joke about bailouts even punctures the sanctity of an alternate universe unrelated to our own. It's not that nothing is sacred, it's that sacredness itself does not exist. That's why the show can be incredibly funny and head-spinningly predictable, but still slave to a scorching undercurrent of sadness that prevents you from losing yourself in its entertainment. Treat death as silly as you want - it's still going to happen to you.
So whether the jester of the moment is the guard (Brian Hutchison) who announces the smallest events as if royal proclamations, the ebullient doctor (William Sadler) who delivers the prognosis, the servant-of-all trades Juliette (Andrea Martin) who's approaching the end of her professional usefulness, or Queens Marguerite and Marie (Susan Sarandon and Lauren Ambrose) who duel for supremacy at the end of Berenger's life just as they always have, the stakes are not in question. Marie can coddle, Marguerite can straight-talk, what's going to be is going to be - nothing matters.
Except it does. This production goes further than most in projecting that although you need to let go eventually, you should do as much as you can while you can. No one's accomplished more than Berenger, who got his start stealing fire from the Gods and somehow found time to write The Iliad, masquerade as Shakespeare, and invent tractors and integrated circuitry. But if the play and especially this production chide him for his childishness in not realizing he's outlived his utility (set and costume designer Dale Ferguson has dressed him in purple-pinstripe pajamas) they powerfully assert that that's no reason to muck it up.
The scene in which that finally happens, with Berenger moving about in grimly resolved silence to Marguerite's firm but gentle urging might be the most accomplished in any Broadway show this year. It's nothing more than Rush, looking his palest and most ancient, being led through the darkness by his eternally strong and combative wife, yet it captures cessation in all its stunning serenity. Sarandon makes no overtures of grandness and barely any of character - her delivery is so straightforward that it glances the edge of monotonousness. But it's that simplicity that lets the scene work: At the moment it's least needed, all adornment has vanished.
Rush is free of it throughout, which is in itself a minor miracle: Armfield has rendered everything so out-front, so to-the-rafters big that you'd expect he'd need fancy filigree just to be noticed. For Rush, Berenger's decay is so gradual and his innocence so complete that each new absurdity is just a part of his acceptance process. Whether skipping about the stage like a schoolgirl, or imploring the billions of dead who've gone before to tell them how they managed it, he never misses a step on the path from fear to readiness. Everything he says and does is recognizable, real, and right.
The other performers aren't quite in Sarandon and Rush's league, but they're all good: Hutchison never oversells the guard's broken-record shtick, Sadler is relatively reserved as the doctor, Martin never lets her gold-plated clownishness overwhelm Juliette, and Ambrose is perfectly aged whine as the empty bodice who's always mistaken lust for love. She's the first to dissolve when Berenger's memories fade - she never understood her place, but she's destined to take it nonetheless.
As are we all, the production scolds. Even if this message is decorated in gilt-edged comedy, it's not one you may feel the need to hear. But this necessary admonition is so celebratory, you won't mind for long. If you have to go, go out with a bang, and few shows right now bang louder than this Exit the King.