At Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ), Artistic Director Bonnie Monte directs a cast of all-stars in Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist look at death in current production “Exit the King.” Combining elements of the current political situation, with Ionesco’s febrile dream of what death might mean, makes for a powerful cocktail in this summer hotbed of finger-pointing and policy. This feat is no more impressive for having been written and first performed in the early 1960s. Times change, people not so much.
This is part of the cycle of plays featuring the recurring central character Bérenger, four in total, and this play adheres most closely to Samuel Beckett’s work. This play is more straightforward than the other three Bérenger plays, though in this one, Bérenger is a King, who could control the forces of Nature as well as other people. Now, however, the man and his kingdom are falling to wrack and ruin together and his remaining servants and his two wives are warring factions in getting him to alternately reject or accept his fate.
The cast is family to habitués of STNJ, featuring Brent Harris as the benighted and physically PFFFT King and Marion Adler as the ever-pragmatic Queen Marguerite, with Jesmille Darbouze as the ever-hopeful Queen Marie. They are the angel and devil on each of his shoulders, as he wars within himself as well to deny the inevitable, his over-timely demise. His faithful Guard is Jon Barker, whose physical comedy skills are equaled only by his stentorian delivery of the flaming obvious, and Greg Watanabe as the Doctor is as logical as “Star Trek's” Mr. Spock, seen through a fun-house mirror. Kristie Dale Sanders as the faithful and weary Juliette often steals the early parts of the show with her antic sense of fun and wry, dry delivery.
It takes a lot of skill to perform a play like this without descending to slapstick or parody and Harris' delivery of the foibles of Bérenger is delightful, arresting and poignant. Darbouze's dogged persistence in seeing the best in everything seems to spring from the most sincere part of her being, while Adler's Marguerite is perfection in her proto-Buddhist role as guide for the benighted Bérenger. Her job is herding the cats of his personality and getting them all pulling like a team of Clydesdales, even as Bérenger’s world and mind are disintegrating.
Having lost a dear friend very recently, I wasn't certain I was ready for "Exit the King." It is clear, however, that facing one's death is both progressive and regressive. Coming from Ionesco's childhood idea that one could deny sickness away, writing this play during a protracted serious illness helped him come to terms with the inevitable, and Queen Marguerite's words, as she's guiding Bérenger to his ultimate end, are contemplative and philosophical, and will help many take their journey into that long, good night.
Buy your tickets now for this great adventure and plan to stay after the show–each performance through the closing on August 28 features a talkback with the cast and director of the show. Plan early, plan often, and take good friends with you. Reserve now at www.shakespearenj.org