This has to be the liveliest death on record. Never mind those scary figures of legend who kept on fighting with bullets, poisons and knives in their guts: Rasputin, Blackbeard, that psychopath from the “Halloween” movies. When it comes to refusing to shuffle off the old mortal coil, these men are all small time compared to his moribund majesty King Berenger, whose last hours on earth have been brought to life like a fire-trailing comet by Geoffrey Rush.
Let me add that in the title role of Eugène Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” which opened Thursday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in Neil Armfield’s brutally funny revival, Mr. Rush is not only more entertaining than the usual never-say-die bogeyman but also more frightening. That’s not because you’re worried that the 400-year-old Berenger might come after you in your dreams, Freddy Krueger style; it’s because you know that the seedy, power-addled egomaniac onstage — who’s working overtime to dodge his own mortality — is, quite simply, you.
When “Exit the King” was first staged on Broadway in 1968 (for a repertory run of 47 performances), it prompted the critic Clive Barnes, writing in The New York Times, to call it Ionesco’s “incomparably greatest work.” Yet “Exit the King” has seldom been seen in these parts during the last four decades, and it has never secured the place on academic syllabuses of this Romanian-born French playwright’s more famous exercises in Absurdism, like “The Bald Soprano” and “Rhinoceros.”
You can understand why producers would flinch at the idea of a play that spends more than two hours telling theatergoers they are going to die, like it or not. This is the United States, where people still half-believe in the possibility of immortality through plastic surgery, gym memberships and green tea. Who expects to have a good time at what might be described as a vaudeville version of the teachings of the death guru Elisabeth Kübler-Ross?
But the lingering winter of 2009 — the centenary year, as it happens, of Ionesco’s birth — may be exactly the moment for New York to receive Ionesco’s king, and not just because of the presence of the Oscar-winning stars, Mr. Rush and Susan Sarandon. The world described when the play begins should, after all, sound awfully familiar to Americans these days.
The once-mighty country over which Berenger rules has become a sadly shrunken empire, drained of its power and youth by expensive wars and neglect of natural resources. The sun has lost 50 to 75 percent of its strength, an immense sinkhole threatens to swallow up pretty much everything that remains, and the royal palace is a royal shambles. The days of balls and lavish expenditure are gone. Or as Queen Marguerite (Ms. Sarandon) puts it: “The party’s over. People know that but carry on as if they didn’t.”
I don’t need to belabor contemporary parallels. The spry new English adaptation by Mr. Armfield and Mr. Rush makes it easy for you to draw your own topical comparisons. (Of course there are such occasional rib nudges as having an enthusiastic guard, played by Brian Hutchison, deliver a tribute to king and country in a voice that summons George W. Bush.) And much of the knowing pleasure of the early scenes comes from the grim, hyperbolic examples of just how bad things have gotten in Berenger’s realm. Example: At the beginning of his reign the population was “nine thousand million”; now there are merely “a thousand old people,” and “they’re dying as we speak.”
These dire statistics are delivered with panache by Ms. Sarandon, Mr. Hutchison, William Sadler (as the court physician, astrologer and executioner) and Andrea Martin as the only remaining, and hence ridiculously overworked, palace maid. (Lauren Ambrose’s Queen Marie, the king’s second, younger, wife, is still too idealistic to join in this cynical exchange.) And you can sense the audience warming with relief to the gallows humor, which is not so different from what is heard in late-night television monologues.
There are even times, in the opening moments, when you could imagine yourself at a music hall in last-gasp Berlin in the early 1930s, what with those rotting tapestries, a cast in German Expressionist makeup and fairy-tale-gone-rancid costumes. (Dale Ferguson is the tone-perfect set and costume designer.) Mr. Rush — in red-striped pajamas, heavy robe and Kokoschkaesque face — suggests a Mother Goose monarch reconceived by Tim Burton. Let’s gather at the cabaret, old chum, and chuckle balefully over our woes.
But the genius of the show’s presentation — derived from a 2007 production by Mr. Armfield with Mr. Rush in Melbourne, Australia — is in its use of rowdy comic grotesquerie to lure us into raw and very real emotional territory. The surface joke of the king who wouldn’t die, having already wrecked his country beyond repair, shades into a psychic X-ray of Everyman, refusing to believe in the death that is about to claim him. (Berenger is Ionesco’s name for his universal hero in other plays, including “Rhinoceros.”)
To this end “Exit the King” makes better use of what are usually thought of as Brechtian devices than any Brecht production I’ve seen in New York in years. The characters are introduced in a rag-tag royal procession, like the traveling players from “Hamlet.”
Actors break the fourth wall (appropriately, since the palace walls are said to be cracking by the minute) to let us know how much longer the play — i.e., the king’s life — has to run. The lines between audience and stage (the palace trumpeter is spotlighted in a theater box) are drawn and erased, like chalk in the rain, a process beautifully enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting.
But instead of distancing us from the exaggerated cartoon types onstage, these devices pull us into greater intimacy with them. Mr. Rush’s knockout portrayal has some of the weary, contemptuous razzle-dazzle of Laurence Olivier’s great music-hall persona in “The Entertainer.” Politics is showbiz and pageantry, for sure — we all know that. (And this production makes inspired slapstick use of weighty props of state like scepters and trailing robes.) What “Exit the King,” and Mr. Rush’s portrait, insist is that we acknowledge how much we transform our own lives into flashy, death-denying star turns.
If it’s Mr. Rush who leads us to the abyss, the rest of the cast follows him in style. Despite an overabundance of sententious lines, each ensemble member undergoes a sly transformation from symbolic gargoyle to the kind of person anyone will recognize who has spent time at a deathbed.
Every performance evokes a different style — from the superb Ms. Martin’s addled, ratlike servant to the American dude-ishness of Mr. Hutchison’s soldier and the sideshow hucksterism of Mr. Sadler’s doctor. Yet somehow the disparities work, feeding our sense of the loneliness implicit in the very idea of individuality. Ms. Ambrose’s overripe emotionalism as the young queen who still loves her husband is the perfect counterpoint to the acerbic pragmatism in Ms. Sarandon’s sustained coolness (an approach that pays off in Marguerite’s overlong concluding monologue).
Mr. Rush’s ecstatically mannered performance, which uses every old trouper trick in the trunk, at first makes you think of the venerable actor-managers of yore, like Donald Wolfit. But as he struts and frets his two hours on the stage, which include a hilariously spastic promenade, he seems to shed his skin along with the king’s accouterments.
Watching him is like staring at one of Goya’s more savage caricatures. At first you’re amused, fascinated and repelled. But the longer you look, the more human the image becomes until finally, you realize with a shudder, it has turned into a mirror.
Times may be tough, but our nation's troubles pale compared with those suffered by the royal subjects in Exit the King.
In the new Broadway revival of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic (* * *½ out of four), we witness the last moments of an autocratic regime and its leader, King Berenger, who is told in the first act that he'll die before the final curtain.
One might expect the monarch to take the news in stride. He is, after all, more than 400 years old and his domain in utter disrepair. But Berenger is no readier to confront his mortality than Mick Jagger, at least not until toward the end of the second act, when the tone softens and what has been a socially pointed tragi-farce evolves into a spiritual meditation.
This production, which opened Thursday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, features a new adaptation by director Neil Armfield and leading man Geoffrey Rush; Susan Sarandon co-stars as Queen Marguerite. Rush and Armfield have preserved the play's piquance while making its humor and soulfulness accessible to audience members who might not have rushed to see Ionesco done by lesser-known actors.
Reflecting on Berenger's record of oppression and mass murder, his loyal guard notes that executions were carried out "for national security." When the king tries to compel his distraught second wife, Queen Marie, to move toward him and she is literally paralyzed by his powerlessness, he demands, "Do Irish dancing. You don't need your arms!"
Rush has a grand time surveying the depths of comedy and pathos offered by Berenger. It's a flamboyant, hilariously physical performance that becomes profoundly moving as the king struggles to come to terms with his fate, and reveals the childlike fear and uncertainty underlying his narcissism. As Berenger's coldly pragmatic first wife, Sarandon is his foil and his antagonist, chiding him in a flat, acidic voice; later, her earthy delivery becomes more soothing, suggesting a possibility for redemption.
Since Exit is an ensemble piece, the other characters are equally crucial, and Armfield culls excellent work from all. Lauren Ambrose makes a wonderfully warped ingénue as the hyper-emotional Marie, who represents Berenger's need for sensual gratification, while Andrea Martin brings her own sure-footed wackiness to the nurse/servant Juliette.
William Sadler is robustly entertaining and appropriately creepy as the king's doctor/astrologer/executioner, and Brian Hutchison's guard is an inspired doofus. Dale Ferguson's chintz-goth set design and the wryly spooky sound and music provided by, respectively, Russell Goldsmith and John Rodgers add tonally correct texture.
For some, Exit the King will offer a welcome respite from real-life woes; others may find its tale topical, even cautionary. Regardless, Ionesco's account of a ruler who squanders his time is well worth yours.
"Nothing's abnormal when abnormal has become the new normal," declares Geoffrey Rush, a short distance into his astonishing performance as the dying monarch in "Exit the King." It's that state of pervasive uncertainty, in a world thrown into chaos as an empire crumbles, that rescues Eugene Ionesco's 1962 absurdist tragedy from the dusty vaults and infuses it with unexpected currency. But the play's relevance is secondary to the virtuoso work of its lead actor, who unleashes a dazzling arsenal of mime, clowning and physical techniques to swerve in an instant between comedy and pathos, keeping the audience riveted to him through every hairpin turn.
Rush and director Neil Armfield, who collaborated on the irreverent adaptation of one of Ionesco's more linear texts, first staged the play in Australia in 2007, building the production around the actor's specific skill set. Since then, much has changed to render the work more trenchant, notably the exit of an out-of-touch administration, heedless to the wreckage being left in its wake.
While it's set in an abstract time and place, only someone sleeping through the production would miss the connections. King Berenger is a warmongering, autocratic ruler surrounded by loyalists on one side and self-serving antagonists on the other. His palace is cracked, his kingdom disintegrating, his governmental experts perished, his populace enfeebled and his washing machine pawned to bail out the treasury. Even nature, the planets and time have turned against him. "The frolics are over," hisses Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon), his embittered first wife.
The play has a built-in spoiler right at the start. "You are going to die in an hour and a half," Marguerite informs her husband. "You are going to die at the end of the play." That occurs by agonizing degrees as Rush's petulant, pajama-clad 400-year-old king works through denial, anger, bargaining, accelerated deterioration and reluctant acceptance in an agitated state of Beckettian suspension. Even as he refuses to let go, railing at the loss of his powers, Berenger frets over his legacy, oblivious to the fact that he has driven his empire into the ground.
But it's the production's humanism, more than its political parallels, that keeps it compelling. This is above all an existential examination of death, of the terrifying contemplation of the void beyond and the helplessness that comes with sudden loss of physical strength and mental faculties. In his Broadway debut, Rush's supreme achievement is that he forces us to empathize with such a buffoonish, despotic gargoyle.
Despite the antic tone of much of the performance -- full of tumbles and pratfalls, nifty scepter tricks and even a Buster Keaton-esque marching-band dance -- there's an emotional undertow at play, and not just when Rush stops cavorting.
In one especially penetrating passage, he steps off the stage to wander the aisles, his face ashen as he calls to the dead for guidance. In another scene, Berenger's Marie Antoinette-like condescension is underscored by the desperation of someone clinging enviously to life as he romanticizes the pain, boredom and drudgery of Juliette (Andrea Martin), cleaning woman and registered nurse to Their Majesties.
Considering how aggressively much of the production is pitched toward outlandish comedy, its sorrow creeps up on you as stealthily as the ambient soundscape by Russell Goldsmith and composer John Rodgers.
Not everyone rises to Rush's level, but Martin's gift for physical comedy has rarely been better utilized than in her cartoonish characterization. As the purse-lipped court doctor, William Sadler deftly exploits an unpitying vein in the playwright's humor, while Brian Hutchison clanks around amusingly as an armor-clad guard, bellowing royal decrees. The monologue in which he reveals his soft spot for the king via an unlikely catalog of the monarch's achievements -- everything from splitting the atom to penning the collected works of Shakespeare to inventing the search engine -- is strangely touching. "He cut off a few heads. It's true," concedes the guard. "It was for national security."
Berenger's queens are more uneven. If Lauren Ambrose doesn't quite have the technique to match Rush's quicksilver shifts, she's nonetheless radiant as the adoring second wife who tries to cushion his pain with love. She hurls herself bravely into the spirit of a production that plays everything large, climbing to melodramatic heights without fear of seeming foolish.
With her Marge Simpson hair-tower caged in bling, Sarandon is an arresting ice queen, her back arched and legs akimbo as she looks on coldly, clenching and unclenching her gloved fingers. There are sharp moments in Sarandon's venomous comments, but authority is lacking. Absent from Broadway since 1972, she maintains her naturalistic screen style in a role that calls for something bolder.
But in the unsettling final scene, in which the rest of the court has literally vaporized, leaving Marguerite alone to coax the now blind and deaf Berenger toward his demise, Sarandon mesmerizes, addressing him like a nurturing mother to a confused child. The scene is made more beautiful still by the final descent into sepulchral gloom of Damien Cooper's lighting and the lowering of the faded royal curtains and exotic backcloths that drape Dale Ferguson's effective circus-style set.
From the pompously heralded comic entrances, as Their Majesties stride on with Juliet scurrying behind to manage their unwieldy cloaks (also Ferguson's nifty handiwork), Armfield establishes the playful tone of a burlesque. But the adapters extract something poignant and troubling from their portrait of a vain, vindictive king who, almost to the end, would sacrifice anyone from the court to prolong his own life. As Berenger's body systematically shuts down, his last gasp leaves us all staring into the abyss.