The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a rare opportunity to see absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco’s thought-provoking play Exit the King, which opened August 19. According to production director and STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, the play is subject to many interpretations, and “has the power to unfold a different tale and different meaning for each and every audience member.” Evidence of the play’s myriad layers emerged in a talk-back, where audience members variously interpreted it as political allegory, an echo of Lear, a mythic parable, a palliative to the grievously afflicted, a tragi-comedy, and so on. Whatever the interpretation, the play and this production give audiences much to think about.
Born in Romania to French and Romanian parents, Ionesco was a master of theater of the absurd, which he preferred to call Theater of Derision. But Exit the King is surprisingly tender, dealing as it does with death and its inevitability and the tension between the fight to live (at all costs) and acceptance (not without costs of its own). The 400-year-old King is dying. His first wife Marguerite wants him to accept death and the disintegration of his kingdom. His current wife, Marie, wants him to fight on. Will he? Can he? Ionesco wrote this play in 1962, but the questions he raises about sustaining life—or not—and the illusion of choice in the matter are even more salient today.
Critic Martin Esslin, who coined the term “theater of the absurd,” said its purpose is to force each member of the audience “to solve the riddle he is confronted with.” Monte has remained true to this ideal, refusing to overlay any particular conclusion. Ionesco himself characterized the play as “an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying.” He deployed his frequent character Berenger in the role of the King to underscore the play’s “everyman” theme.
Though Ionesco says the play is 90 minutes long (as is the STNJ production), the script contains more than three hours’ content. Monte has pared it by more than half, accepting Ionesco’s own suggested deletions and (thankfully) eliminating a great many redundancies. The six-member cast is on stage for almost all of that period, reacting, interacting, so that their ultimate absence is all the more powerful. Most of the consistently interesting staging is the STNJ’s own conception, because the playwright’s directions are sparse and, where they exist, impossible. Monte gave “The King ages 1400 years” as an example.
The exemplary cast is Brent Harris as Berenger The First (The King); Marion Adler as the old Queen Marguerite; Jesmille Darbouze as the new Queen Marie; Jon Barker as the Guard; Kristie Dale Sanders as the maid; and Greg Watanabe as the doctor.
Production credits to Brittany Vasta for the masterful design of a set like a wedge plucked from a gothic abbey, Christine Whalen (Production Stage Management), Karin Graybash (Sound Design), Tony Galaska (Lighting Design), and Hugh Hanson (Costume Design).