By Chris Joseph
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How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb? The answer is... a fish.
This is an old joke, but I had never heard it until Colin McPhillamy, the lead actor in Palm Beach Dramaworks' Exit the King, told it to the audience as he wandered around the auditorium before the start of the opening-night show last weekend.
Indeed, even before the first word of Eugene Ionesco's masterwork is spoken, we're predisposed to comedy; Jim Ballard, who plays the king's armored guard, idles onstage before the production, smoking cigarettes and reaching into the pocket of his chain-armored costume to silence a sprightly cell phone. When the show commences, it opens with the lightness of a game show, as multicolored spotlights wend around the stage to introduce the characters, dressed in ludicrous period garb from no particular period.
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Don't be fooled: It's all false advertising. Dramaworks' Exit the King is about as funny as a heart attack or, more appropriately, as funny as the final death throes of a cancer patient in his last hours on Earth, his body slowly, methodically powering down like an aged battery or a battered jalopy.
Conceived in 1962 as the third play in a challenging trilogy by self-reflexive Romanian absurdist Ionesco, Exit the King is set in the throne room of a crumbling castle, where King Berenger (McPhillamy) is told he will die by "the end of the play" — approximately an hour and a half later. We're told that he has reigned for more than 400 years but that recently, the kingdom collapsed, leading to perpetual war and widespread infertility; after three days of symptoms — which the king has refused to accept — it's finally his time.
He's joined onstage by his stately, grounded first wife, Marguerite (Angie Radosh); his hopelessly naive second wife, Marie (Claire Brownell); his doctor/executioner (Rob Donahoe); his maid (Elizabeth Dimon); and the aforementioned guard (Ballard), each of whom helps or hinders the king's acceptance of his mortality.
Sounds like a romp, eh? This English translation, updated by actor Geoffrey Rush and writing partner Nick Armfeld in 2009, is presented as a comedy, but I could never laugh. The experience was far too painful, too uncomfortable, too confrontational in its evocation of the last hours of someone's — anyone's — life.
Yes, there are obvious comic devices, mostly inserted by Rush and Armfeld in misguided attempts to inject levity into the proceedings. Ballard's guard has an annoying tendency to sing lines of dialogue like they're famous rock lyrics; there's some slapstick business with the characters' ridiculous dress trains; and there's a manic strobe-light sequence and the occasional self-referential address to the audience. McPhillamy engages in some exaggerated, silent-film-style mugging, but it doesn't suit him nearly as much as the show's dramatic core. I'm not alone here — aside from a few isolated pockets of nervous chuckles, the response that accompanied most attempted quips on opening night was that of the proverbial cricket.
I'm not sure if the show's absence of comic potency is a flaw in William Hayes' direction, but it ultimately doesn't matter, because as a drama, this production is masterful. For all his characters' impotent laugh lines, McPhillamy's performance is more rooted in Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief, touching all of them over the course of the show. Hobbling around on his scepter and, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, aching in the places where he used to play, McPhillamy creates a vulnerable, multifaceted portrait of a dying man. He is by turns defensive, desperate, self-righteous, solipsistic, bombastic, and pathetic. He channels a full spectrum of emotionality over the play's painfully protracted hour and 40 minutes, petering toward an accurate and heartbreaking evocation of senility.
McPhillamy is backed by a perfect ensemble, with Dimon, Donahoe, Ballard, and Brownell offering flawless support. It's Radosh, though, who deserves singling out. For the majority of the play, her Marguerite, hardened by centuries of neglect, is stiff and cold toward the king's pleas; by the end, she becomes the old man's compassionate conduit to the other side, hypnotically prompting him to shed his mortal coil, her soothing voice carrying him toward the tunnel like some otherworldly entity. We've seen Radosh surprise us again and again on the South Florida stage, and this remarkable turn is another revelation.
Dramaworks' design team is exceptional as always, with Michael Amico's scenic design of cracked floors and broken pillars subtly suggesting faded opulence. John Hall's lighting and Matt Corey's sound seem funneled directly into the king's psyche, realizing the shades and noises he feels inside before his mind disintegrates like his body and deafness and blindness consume him.
Exit the King is a morality play as much as a mortality play. Over the course of the evening, the supporting characters unspool the king's biography, suggesting at various times that he was both a despotic, murderous warlord and the greatest inventor and contributor to culture and enlightenment the world had ever known. But the fact is, even if he was Hitler, it would be difficult to watch him perish so painfully, so helplessly, so slowly and painstakingly. It's not often that a 100-minute play feels like a goddamned eternity — and it's even less often that such a statement is presented as praise rather than criticism. Despite its comedic veneer, if you're enjoying yourself too much, you're not really getting it.