The king is dying. Long live the king.
Few actors, perhaps only the best, could sustain the roller coaster of rage, melancholy and megalomania Eugène Ionesco demands in his 1962 play “Exit the King.” In American Players Theatre’s production, running in the indoor Touchstone Theatre through Sept. 27, that job falls to longtime core company member Jim Ridge.
Ridge’s performance, a marvelous one, makes the most persuasive argument for including this play in the season. “Exit the King” is absurd and chaotic, and not as funny as it thinks it is. The king himself is some kind of part, physically demanding and emotionally unpredictable.
APT has chosen a 2007 translation of “Exit” by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, who directed it and played the king respectively that year and later transferred to Broadway. Here, director Tim Ocel, stepping in for Ken Albers, frames the play in his director’s notes with Ionesco’s stated mission — to “help other people learn to die,” or stage “an apprenticeship in dying.” In the play’s first scene, Queen Marguerite (Tracy Michelle Arnold, APT’s most regal actor) informs the King he’s going to die. He’s got less than two hours, in fact; he’ll pass on by the end of the play. “The frolics are over,” she says. “Feeding your face, over. Fan dancing, over.”
Queen Marie (Cassia Thompson), the younger, more naïve of the king’s wives, isn’t having it. Shut up, she tells Marguerite. Don’t give your consent, she tells the king, don’t listen. The king is not of a mind to, moving from disbelief to rage and rationalizing. Ridge hollers, his face contorting with dismay. He crawls on the floor like a baby, sticks his fingers in his ears and pouts like a toddler. He’s been tricked, he says. He’s not ready. “I don’t want to die,” he moans. “Please don’t let me die. Be nice to me. ... I don’t want to.” (Kings, they’re just like us?)
Among the ensemble, Sarah Day plays the palace’s weary, maternal domestic help, throwing out one-liners like an old-timey comedian (“I could use a Dustbuster!”). In a sort of narrator role, Casey Hoekstra plays a palace guard who grimaces like a cartoon warrior and loudly proclaims the action onstage like a sportscaster (not always accurately, to comic effect).
John Pribyl, as the court doctor/surgeon/astrologer, speaks with affected authority and dresses like a cross between Mickey Mouse in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the Wizard of Oz. “No one’s content to just die anymore,” he says. “Everything has to be turned into art.”
“Exit the King” has the kind of presentational style meant to both involve and distance an audience from the action on stage, similar to Beckett and “Waiting for Godot.” It’s the kind of comedy where the queen might drop an emerald green cloak in your lap and a servant might take a seat on the steps of the aisle to deliver her lines from a foot away.
Ocel strikes a tricky balance between the full-tilt comic absurdity and the poetry in the script, assisted by stark and striking lighting by Jesse Klug. Holly Payne costumes the queens in rich gem tones and puts the king in pajamas and slippers. In a choice that emphasizes both the storytelling in the show and the decline of the kingdom, a lot of the clothes look like they could have come out of a kid’s basement costume box.
Though it’s only two hours and the energy is often manic, “Exit the King” can feel like a slog. It runs in circles as the king weakens, rallies and begins to forget. Yet the end, when it comes, is as poignant a scene as I’ve ever seen on the Touchstone stage. Arnold, the king’s first queen, talks the king through his final journey, her voice steady and clear. It’s an exit worthy of a king.