“Why was I born, if it wasn’t forever?”
It’s a lament many of us find ourselves asking on dark nights of the soul when we are forced to dwell on our mortality. Few of us pose the question as bluntly or with as much panic as King Berenger (Ahmad Kamal), a 400 year-old monarch grappling with the end of his life and the kingdom he has presided over for centuries.
Luckily, most of us have the gift of developing more capacity for self-reflection than the childish title character of Eugene Ionesco’s 1960s absurdist meditation on the ending of eras, Exit the King, now being staged by 4615 Theatre Company. Buffered by the harsh realities of life by a thick coterie of sycophants and hangers-on, the King has frittered away the decades by catering to his every whim. He is now taken aback by the sudden erosion of his powers.
No longer do the skies and clouds bend to his every command. According to the Great Man’s personal doctor (Nick Byron), he only has until the end of the play to live. Berenger has no intention of going gently into the night – his complete panic and bewilderment won’t allow it. Even after four centuries of living high on the hog, he is not ready to go.
If the King’s death will mean the end of his kingdom, it may be a blessed relief for his subjects. Eroded by years of neglect and incompetent rule, the territory’s population has dwindled to a shadow of its glory days. The land is in shambles. Just as the audience is unsubtly reminded of our own inevitable fates, we can’t help but also consider the parallels to a society that has been left to wither by poor leadership and wishful thinking.
The King’s supporters have faded to a small inner-circle – an overzealous guard (Curt Gavin), an ever-suffering maid (Morgan Sendek), and two very different wives (Caroline McQuaig and Kate Owens) with opposing attitudes on how the King should face the final curtain call.
If the prospect of a royal leader grappling with his demise sounds like a downer of a premise, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the downright zany humor – veering into the slapstick realm – that pervades the production. Macabre the subject may be, this is a capital “C” comedy that offers plenty of big laughs along with its unsettling reminders.
Exit the King is a very sly send-up of the pomp and circumstance of statecraft and offers some cutting insight into what possesses the rich and mighty to obsess so intensely over the question of their legacy. During Berenger’s frantic orders to stamp his name on every landmark in sight, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Carl Sagan’s famous ruminations on how small Earth is when viewed from space: “Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”
As the King frantically tries to steel himself for the final hour after untold squandered opportunities to empathize with the nasty and short lives led by his subjects, the doctor advises him, “A well spent hour is better than a whole century of neglect.”
EXIT THE KING
January 15- 22, 2016
4615 Theatre Company
at The Classroom at Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004
Wednesday thru Sunday
4615 Theatre Company surely knows a thing or two about effectively maximizing limited time. Director Jordan Friend opened with an introduction noting the unique challenge that the production company had set for itself: preparing and pulling the show together in only three weeks, part of an ongoing effort at the company to challenge itself to stretch limited resources to the maximum. The results are very impressive, as the production wisely deemphasized elaborate set and lighting designs in favor of wringing terrific performances from the energetic cast, whose youth (all are under 25, according to Friend) adds even more poignancy to the subject matter of facing the end with grace.
Kamal anchors the narrative with a charismatic and sympathetic portrayal of the childish ruler, with Owens especially effective as the wife determined to make him face “reality” (as best it can exist in a surreal world such as this, which has a lot of fun with purposely blurring time periods and tones).
The minimalist production is held in a very close space – audience members in the first rows will find themselves virtually joining the production at times. Some of this interactivity, as well as some of the King’s physical humor when grappling with his illnesses, can grow a bit tiresome over the 100-minute duration of the show. As a whole, however, Exit the King is a very affecting and original work (at least for this reviewer, new to the works of Ionesco). You can do much worse for your entertainment options than to consider the weightiest of themes with such an entertaining ensemble.
Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco . Directed by Jordan Friend. Assistant Director: Charles Patrick Derrickson . Cast: Ahmad Kamal, Kate Owens, Caroline McQuaig, Morgan Sendek, Nick Byron, Curt Gavin . Dramaturg: Susannah Clark . Costume/Make Up Design: Paul Alan Hogan . Scenic Design: Aria Nawab, Anne Donnelly, Jordan Friend . Stage Manager: Maya Barkey . Produced by 4615 Theatre Company . Reviewed by Daron Christopher.