According to an old theater saying, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But Shakespearean actor James Ridge masters both in American Players Theatre’s production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, which opened June 30 in the Spring Green troupe’s intimate Touchstone Theatre.
Ridge takes the six-member cast on a two-hour journey that’s both silly and sublime as he lives the final hours in the life of King Berenger the First, ruler of a fictional kingdom that’s falling into ruin under his leadership. After decades of creating memorable characters in APT productions, Ridge seems at the peak of his talent in this role.
Ionesco scholars have noted Exit the King is not so much a play about death as it is an experience of death. Ridge brilliantly inhabits death’s stages — from hilarity to horror — until he finally shuffles off his mortal coil at curtain. “He has to learn to detach,” says his first wife Queen Marguerite (Tracy Michelle Arnold), who guides Berenger through life’s final steps. Those steps range from slapstick-silly to a poignancy that’s rarely achieved. Director Tim Ocel and his performers manage the difficult transitions in Berenger’s final journey with aplomb.
Ionesco scholars classify Exit the King, written in 1962, as the third in the playwright’s “Berenger series,” after The Killer (1958) and Rhinoceros (1959) and before A Stroll in the Air (1963). In this work, Ionesco turned Berenger from a depressed and insecure everyman into a solipsistic and belligerent monarch. The play offers one of Ionesco’s most linear plotlines, despite its often-frantic first half.
Part of the Theater of the Absurd movement, Exit the King is much like the work of fellow Absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, who also focused on themes of alienation and difficulty in communication. Ionesco wrote the play when he was ill and frightened of death, resulting in a seriocomic effort that he described as “an apprenticeship in dying.” Berenger spends much of his time in denial as the clock ticks his life away. Marguerite and the doctor (John Pribyl) remind him periodically how many minutes he has left to live.
Queen Marie (Cassia Thompson), Berenger’s much younger second wife, incessantly coaxes him to live, while the guard (Casey Hoekstra) and the nurse/housemaid Juliette (Sarah Day in a wonderfully understated performance) do their best to keep up with the activity.
Hoekstra, in fact, performs a dual role — half in and half out of character — interacting with audience members at the start of the show while the scene is being set for designer Michael Ganio’s mostly barren stage. We are lulled into a comfortable familiarity with the story and its characters, only to have our emotions turned upside down by Ridge’s compelling performance.
“No one is happy just dying anymore,” says the doctor at one point. “Everything has to be turned into art.” In the hands of Ocel and his APT cast, the process of dying becomes a delicate and dynamic art of the first order.