A King Who Serves for 400 Years?

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Exit the King

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

In Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 play Exit the King, that opened Saturday at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, at Drew University, Madison, N.J., a country’s King, Berenger, is 400 years old. He has been around forever and now, at long last, he is dying. It takes him 90 minutes to die, way too long, as his tale unfolds and his two wives, doctor and sycophants comfort him as he approaches the grand finale of his many royal days.

He has been a bad King. He led his country into 180 wars, his nation’s population is down to just a few thousand people, a sinkhole threatens his capital city and his palace is crumbling – big cracks grow bigger as the play continues. He ruminates endlessly about all of this in long, tedious monologues.

Surely, there is a point to this dreadful, sluggish play about 400 years of history. It is, critics seemed to say over the years, about how a man faces his own death and others who love him view his meeting with his maker. Berenger, they say, represents all of us. The King does ramble on about that, and the deaths of everybody, as the play drags on through the slowest ninety minutes in theater history. There is a knight who clangs about the stage, an old wife and a young wife, each more offensive than the other, and a slick doctor who seems right out of the Saturday Night Live television show.

The royal old boy appears to die about three quarters of the way through the drama but then he is miraculously revived. Too bad. He even dances about the stage for a few moments and appears to be one of the Three Stooges.

Hey, how do you live 400 years and then die in just ninety minutes anyway? That’s a good trick right there.

I watched the play, trying desperately to stay awake, and thought about how America would be with a man in power for 400 years? Can you just imagine? Abraham Lincoln for 400 years? Whoa, what if it was Herbert Hoover? Richard Nixon?

Exit the King has not been revived that often and is rarely staged in regional theater or local community theaters and now I know why. This is one long, boring play about how people look at 400 years of history through the eyes of a monarch who helped shape it. Did he do a good job? No. Does he think he did a good job? Maybe. Do his wives think so? They do, but they prattle on for so long that you cannot figure that out.

Director Bonnie Monte, who loves this play and seems to admire its intellectual depths (pretty deep, deep if you ask me) , did a decent job directing it and the palace throne room set by Brittany Vasta is nothing short of sensational. All of the actors did fine work, especially Brent Harris as King Berenger. He is masterful and puts as much life as anyone could into the clunker of a monarch. Other good performances are by Marion Adler as Queen Marguerite, Jon Barker as the palace guard, Jesmille Darbouze as Queen Marie, Kristie Dale Sanders as Juliette and Greg Watanabe as the doctor.

If Ionesco had kept the play at one hour it might have made an iconic, edgy one acter, but at ninety minutes it simply falls apart. Ionesco spent too much time thinking about the meaning of the universe when he wrote this play and all of his supporters through the years kept looking for the planets (I don’t think they found any of them).

At the performance I caught, the entire audience rose and applauded the show, many lustily. They loved it. I think this play is like one of those books that you read and do not understand but tell your friends it was great so they will think you are smart. It’s the Hans Christian Anderson’s story The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which everybody applauds the King in his invisible new clothes, but here there is a stage director.

So, please, let this King exit as quickly as possible.

Go! Go!

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Scenic Design: Brittany Vasta, Costumes: Hugh Hanson, Sound: Karin Graybash, Lighting: Tony Galaska. The play continues through August 28.

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