What’s a king to do when the Milky Way has curdled, the planets have collided, the palace is crumbling and the entire country is falling into an abyss? According to absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco, the only thing left to do is die. So for the duration of Exit the King, running in the Touchstone Theatre through Sept. 27, audiences see the King (James Ridge) receiving the news of his impending end and living his final two hours. As his practical first wife, Queen Marguerite (Tracy Michelle Arnold), continuously reminds him, “You will die at the end of the play.” The only thing for the audience to do is follow the frustrating, confusing, and absolutely absurd voyage from life to death.
In contrast to the morbid subject matter, much of the production feels like a journey through a carnival fun house. There are lots of laughs and pratfalls. Lights flash and the King goes to outlandish lengths to outrun, outsmart, and generally refuse his death sentence. There is also a Brechtian self-consciousness to the piece; actors chat with audience members as they arrange set pieces and check light cues before the show begins and hand costume pieces from a visible costume trunk to patrons in the front row.
Directed by Tim Ocel, the show is a ridiculous ride through the classic stages of death and dying. A quack doctor (John Pribyl), a sensuous young wife (Cassia Thompson), and a soldier who cannot stop following orders (a very funny Casey Hoekstra) swirl around the King, making his passing harder and more fraught, even while they are trying to ease his way.
As the Everyman who fights, rages, claws, hides, and eventually succumbs to death, Ridge is frantically looking for a way out for the first half of the play. He grows steadily weaker and acquiesces one tiny piece at a time for the second half. The salt-of-the-earth maid and nurse (a hollow-cheeked Sarah Day) remarks several times in wonder that kings die just as common people do.
Indeed, it’s hard not to think of hospital visits with friends and relatives while witnessing Ridge portraying the King’s decline. One minute he’s sulking like a spoiled child, but then he’s searching for solace in sex, or trying to leave a legacy of accomplishments in medicine and science. Ridge marches through it all, even delivering a heartbreaking silent soliloquy for almost eight minutes, telling a story using just facial expressions and body language. The Queen gently leads him toward the end, her voice steady as if reciting a meditation. And as the lights go down in a painfully slow fade (gorgeous design by Jesse Klug), Ridge’s facial features are obscured so that he is, in fact, any of us. And all of us.