Among the legions of writers who’ve held forth on the topic of death, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov may have been the one to nail it: “Death is peaceful,” he said. “It’s the transition that’s troublesome.”
King Berenger, the ... um ... hero of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist comedy “Exit The King” (running through September 27 in the Touchstone Theater) would clearly agree. In American Players Theatre’s staging, Jim Ridge plays the 400-year-old ruler, barely able to stand of his own accord but doing just about everything possible to avoid the grim reality staring him in the face: He’s going to die by the end of the play. “I will die when I feel like it!” Ridge’s king shouts like a petulant 5-year-old, while wearing a fur-lined, royal robe over the same kind of striped pajamas you’d find on a hospice resident. “I am the king!”
His absurdist kingdom reflects his personal decay, and so does the play’s set. The radiators don’t work and the pipes are streaked with rust. There’s an ominous crack in the invisible wall that protects his shrinking kingdom from the advancing hordes. The whole thing looks like a backstage production that’s literally minutes away from being abandoned or packed up and stuck in a warehouse. Or coffin, as the case may be.
Ridge’s king is surrounded by a swirl of archetypes who help and, in one case, hinder his final steps into the great unknown. His first wife, Marguerite (Tracy Michelle Arnold), is in full imperious mode as the steely voice of reason and annoyance; an imposing presence who’s constantly reminding him of the precise number of minutes remaining on his personal clock. And she has exactly zero patience for his royal stalling tactics.
The Doctor (John Pribyl), decked in some truly ridiculous outfits, has been the king’s astrologer/partner in crime but switches over to Team Reality. (“No one is content to die anymore,” he sniffs derisively. “Everything has to be turned into art.”) The king’s second wife, Marie (an earnest Cassia Thompson) would do literally anything to deny the truth and keep him alive. Casey Hoesktra plays the proclamation-shouting royal guardsman (“THE KING IS DYING!” “THE KING IS RECOVERING!”) for massive laughs. And Sarah Day channels the audience’s befuddled reactions as the exasperated royal servant.
It’s interesting to see the varied retellings of the king’s legacy. One minute, he’s a legendary titan of industry who invented the Internet (shades of Al Gore!). The next he’s a heartless tyrant who brooked torture and murder to prop up his realm (shades of Vladimir Putin). The truth is obviously lodged somewhere in between. It’s an astute nod to the point about history and victors — and one that has additional resonance given the tendencies of the individual currently ruling our own cracking nation.
The funhouse atmosphere only heightens as the king’s clock winds down and he spins through the various stages of grief, culminating in a wacky strobe-light chase. Ridge’s fearlessness is one of his best qualities as an actor. Just as he didn’t flinch from inhabiting a physically frail Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol,” he doesn’t flinch here.
Toward the end of the play, his character is stripped of nearly everything — including dialogue — leaving him looking frail and utterly vulnerable as he faces the very same thing we’re all going to face at some point. After all the laughter and hijinks, it’s a stark and deeply affecting finish.
Director Tim Ocel — who stepped in at the last minute when Kenneth Albers, the show’s original director, had to drop out for health considerations — has created one of this season’s genuine dark horses, a modest show that rises far above expectations.