Thursday, March 28, 2013

Letting Go -- Dramaworks' Exit the King

It is the rare regional theatre that would commit to the infrequently performed Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco.  It is so much easier to win over an audience, particularly here in South Florida, with a traditional play grounded in realism.  But Dramaworks is open to almost any theatrical challenge and it has earned the right to take on the occasional unconventional and controversial piece.  However, will it's loyal devotees follow them into the veritable shadow of the valley of death?  I think they will provided they check their usual theatrical expectations at the door, and give themselves over to a leading playwright of the Theatre of the Absurd, a skillful director, an incredibly talented cast, and supporting technicians.

While we are all reconciled to the inevitability of our own deaths, at least philosophically, how about being told you have an hour and a half to live, as does our "everyman" 400 year-old King Berenger in Ionesco's Exit the King?  Here's a fable on the art of dying, staged with the only sword we can thrust at the thought: humor.  The corollary is to learn the art of living.

I was more than curious how Dramaworks would stylize Ionesco's play, recently reading the play to familiarize myself with the possibilities. (The Dramaworks' production is based on the more recent, contemporized translation by Neil Armfield, the director of the 2009 Broadway production, and its star, Geoffrey Rush.) Without the strong hand of a director and superlative performances on the part of the actors, it could be a very maudlin evening -- as some earlier versions were purported to have been when the play was first staged in the 1960's.  Fear not, get ready for many hilarious moments with this production. 

The "Theatre of the Absurd" finds its philosophical roots in Albert Camus' 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus which presents the ultimate philosophical conundrum:.....much of our life is built on the hope for tomorrow yet tomorrow brings us closer to death and is the ultimate enemy; people live as if they didn't know about the certainty of death; once stripped of its common romanticisms, the world is a foreign, strange and inhuman place; true knowledge is impossible and rationality and science cannot explain the world: their stories ultimately end in meaningless abstractions, in metaphors. "From the moment absurdity is recognized, it becomes a passion, the most harrowing of all."

Playwrights like Ionesco, Genet, Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee, brought this philosophical view to drama.   It was critic Martin Esslin who defined this genre in his 1960's study, Absurd Drama: The Theatre of the Absurd attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy. It aims to shock its audience out of complacency, to bring it face to face with the harsh facts of the human situation as these writers see it. But the challenge behind this message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibly; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

At the time Esslin considered Samuel Beckett to be the leading playwright of the genre, and having seen his Happy Days a couple of years ago at the Westport Country Playhouse, I can see why. That play taught me the lesson of reading the script of an Absurdist drama before seeing it, saying at the time,  Happy Days is the kind of theatre that one thinks about as much in retrospect as when one experiences it. In fact, I would have been happy to have had a Samuel French edition in my lap with a tiny flashlight to follow what is mostly an uninterrupted monologue. It is so rich in meaning and innuendo.

But Ionesco is an equal master and Dramaworks' production of his Exit the King indeed releases "laughter of liberation" displacing any "tears of despair,"  watching clown-like King Berenger's kingdom go to rack and ruin as his control over it and as his own life slip away. Although he is given credit for virtually every invention of mankind, he also shoulders the blame for letting his kingdom devolve.  He has been oblivious to the passing of time, and has narcissistically whiled away his days  .  Like the rest of us in our own little kingdoms, we exercise the illusion of control in a world that will forget us in a nanosecond when we are gone. 

The play more or less follows the progression of the stages of dying as set forth by Kubler-Ross in "The Art of Dying": denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (not necessarily in that order, and sometimes going back and forth) with all of these stages facilitated by interaction with the five other characters in the play, mostly with the timing of a slapstick comedy. (Ionesco's own stage directions for one scene reads "This scene should be played like a tragic Punch and Judy show").

The skillful hand of director William Hayes applies Ionesco's instruction to much of the production, balancing the weighty philosophical content with some belly laughs. As Hayes said in Dramaworks' customary "Knowledge and Nibbles" session the afternoon before last night's preview, "The production has some aspects of a Monty Python film to lure the audience into turbulent territory.... having some characteristics of epic theatre, vaudeville, circus clowns and a puppet show, with a gradual shift in the middle of the play [at which point the audience begins to identify more with King Berenger]."

Last night was the first preview performance and as it is such an intricate play to stage, there were some off moments in this dress rehearsal but one can clearly see where Hayes is going with the orchestration, having selected the ideal actor for each role, choreographing their intricate movement on (and off) stage, and introducing sound effects of the opening and closing of doors, a cacophony of mostly circus sideshow music, bells, whistles, kettle drums and let's not forget the sound of the cuckoo clock, as well as a strobe light enhanced Keystone Kops chase scene.

Our 400 year old King Berenger is told he is dying and has 1 hour and 30 minutes before the play ends to do it. His kingdom is dying as well. He at first protests: "I'll die when I want to."  He asks the fundamental philosophical question: "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?"  Colin McPhillamy gives a tour de force performance as King Berenger.  Even before the actual performance begins he mingles with the audience, in good humor, just a regular guy like the rest of us.  His transformation through the various stages of his impending death on the stage requires great poise and physicality, constantly shifting between vaudevillian comedy to great pathos such as this monologue which settles down the hilarity, solemnly delivered with the cadence of a Gregorian chant: "Help me, you countless thousands who died before me! Tell me how you managed to accept death and die. Then teach me! Let your example be a consolation to me, let me lean on you like crutches, like a brother's arms. Help me to cross the threshold you have crossed! Come back from the other side a while and help me! Assist me, you who were frightened and did not want to go! What was it like? Who held you up? Who dragged you there, who pushed you? Were you afraid to the very end? And you who were strong and courageous, who accepted death with indifference and serenity, teach me your indifference and serenity, teach me resignation!"

It is Queen Marguerite, his first wife, played by Angie Radosh, a seasoned Dramaworks actress, (one of our favorites) who provides the constant voice of reason, telling the King over and over again to prepare for the inevitable: "It's your fault if you've been taken unawares, you ought to have been prepared. You never had the time.  You'd been condemned, and you should have thought about that the very first day, and then day after day, five minutes every day.  It wasn't much to give up.  Five minutes every day.  Then ten minutes, a quarter, half an hour.  That's the way to train yourself."

Radosh's role is often as challenging as McPhillamy's. Unlike the other characters she does not share in the slapstick frivolity, never appearing like a marionette figure.  She is the consummate actress and it is Queen Marguerite who carries the heavy lifting of the final scene in the play, as the King does indeed "exit" (after the other characters have left him alone to do so). Radosh delivers a moving performance in that scene, compassionately assisting the King to the final acceptance of the end of his life.

Countervailing the "old" Queen, is the young and beautiful trophy wife Queen Marie, who entreats the King to live, to fight death by exhorting him to "Cling to me, don't let go! It's I who keep you alive.  I keep you alive, you keep me alive.  D'you see, d'you understand?  If you forget me, if you abandon me, I no longer exist, I am nothing."  Claire Brownell, a newcomer to Dramaworks plays Queen Marie with the right balance of passion, and humor, reminding us at times of a vulnerable Sugar Plum Fairy.

Rob Donohoe performs the role of the Doctor, also Surgeon, Executioner, Bacteriologist & Astrologist!  His riotous first appearance on stage with his wild hair, hack saw in hand and bloody stains on his apron is a harbinger of more humor to come.  Donohoe, another seasoned Dramaworks actor is perfectly cast..  He sides with Queen Marguerite.  The king is dying.  Prepare.  Although he is mostly playing a caricature, he delivers one of the more profound Ionesco lines concerning the relative insignificance of a single life, even though it is that of the King's: "He will be a page in a book of ten thousand pages in one of a million libraries which has a million books." (Although, added to this is a line, presumably from the recent translation, "Or they can Google him.").

Juliette, "the domestic help and registered nurse," is persuasively and amusingly played by Elizabeth Dimon, wearing a sort of worn Raggedy Ann doll attire. The King has always taken her for granted, but she becomes a real person to him while dying, his being accused by the Doctor and Marguerite of trying to "gain time" in taking such interest, as illuminated by this interchange: "King: Tell me how you live. What sort of life do you have? / Juliette: A bad life, Sire. / King: Life can never be bad. It's a contradiction in terms. / Juliette: Life's not very beautiful. / King: Life is life." 

The Guard, performed by a helmeted and heavily armor breasted Jim Ballard, is the comic Greek chorus providing some of the heartiest laughs of the evening. These come from his deadpan announcements of what appears to be happening on the stage such as :"The King is walking! Long live the King!...The King is down! The King is dying!...The King is up! Long live the King! Etc., etc.

Suddenly the guard has a heart to heart talk with the audience, reminiscing about his great days (centuries) with his King and the King's accomplishments which naturally range from inventing gunpowder, steel, zeppelins, airplanes ("At the start it wasn't a success.  The first test pilots, Icarus and the rest, all fell into the sea."), tractors, the building of Rome, New York, Moscow, Paris. Etc. "He wrote tragedies under [the secret] name of Shakespeare." Ballard has played in several Dramaworks productions before and we'll never forget his wonderful voice in Caldwell Theatre Company's concert staging of Sondheim's classic Into the Woods.

When presenting a play that is not a period piece, but a more abstract philosophical concept, the nuances provided by the set design conceived by Michael Amico go a long way to tie the production together.  The set has sort of a three dimensional children's pop out book feel to it.  The costume designs by Leslye Menshouse are spot on, mostly emphasizing caricature, but with regal aspects particularly for Queen Marguerite. Lighting design by John Hall and sound design by Matt Corey are equally important to the overall artistic shape of a production such as this.

When the end finally comes, to our poor King, to his kingdom, to the play itself, we are left with an exhausted emptiness. We've laughed in the presence of the human predicament, sadly knowing what will happen sooner or later to each and every one of us..  But we  have more time, don't we?  It is not a play that will appeal to everyone.  The man next to my wife was very uncomfortable during the performance, while the one next to me just laughed the whole night long.  We exited to the melody of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life"  from Monty Python....

Life's a laugh and death's a joke, it's true
You'll see it's all a show
Keep 'em laughing as you go
Just remember that the last laugh is on you