Exit The King

  • Date:
    March 1, 2009
    Review by:
    Tulis McCall.

    When I grow up I think I�d like to be Geoffrey Rush. At least I�d like to be Rush as King Berenger. Or maybe I could be Eug�ne Ionesco. Or maybe Geoffrey Rush playing Ionesco as King Berenger. After seeing this production, thoughts like these come easily.

    What a glorious dissolution it all is. We can hear it and almost taste it. The world is coming to an end. And so, as it happens, is The King. King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) is 400 years old and counting. His kingdom has shrunk from a few million people down to a few thousand and from miles to yards. There is a crack in the wall, and things aren�t looking good in a good way. He has exactly until the last moment in the play, and not a second longer, to be sentient in all the ways that count.

    When greeted by this news, however, HRH is having none of it. Life is more attractive than it has ever been. Breathing should not be taken for granted. Life lifts you up and lets you down, but what�s not to love? People may be miserable of course, but at least they are alive and should be grateful for that. The King will not die. Period.

    No matter that Queen Marguerite (Susan Sarandon) not only breaks the news to The King but updates Him on the passing time with small bulletins. No matter the executioner-I-mean-Doctor, played brilliantly here by William Sadler, can provide a running commentary on the King�s shoddy past and present condition, a detailed account of everyone who was executed under the King�s Reign, and an opinion on the condition of the world in general: it is ending. No matter that the only person who wants King Berenger to live is his young second wife Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose), and that is only because He flies well below the ceiling of her limited radar.

    No matter any one or any fact or any fiction. Feh on death. The King is going to squeeze every inch, every molecule of life, and he will outwit them all. He is willing to live forever and ever with the worst toothache imaginable. Yes He was warned from Day One, but that was too soon, and now that he is being TOLD � it is too late. He is forcing thoughts through himself like a baker with a pastry pouch. He is on a mission. He is on a madness. Fear won�t kill him. Death might. Ending his text is the only way to do him in.

    When the text does end, however, and Berenger exits, it is we who are abruptly deposited onto our keisters by the side of the road. Berenger is extinguished, but in his leave-taking is it we who are abandoned. Left on our own to live, to live and pretend as we swan out of the theatre into our daily doings, that death is not coming down the pike for us. For the King, sure, of course. Anyone could see that. But not for us, no sir, thank you very much. We�ll take a pass on that if it�s all the same to you. Righty-oh.

    Exit The King is thrilling, precise, and demanding. Geoffrey Rush is only earth-bound because he lacks actual wings. This adaptation that he co-authored lies as comfortably on his head as does his crown, which may be the one downside to the evening. None of the other actors, with the exception of Sadler, is quite able to match Rush stroke for stroke. It requires Olympian skills to create a character�s life force in a production such as this one and make it look effortless. As time goes on, the rest of this fine cast may catch up. They are not far behind.

    I get a little intimidated when I think about going to see absurdist theatre. I worry ahead that Becket or Ionesco or Jarry had one reason to write and that reason was to mess with me personally. I�m going to get into the theatre and be made to feel like an idiot. What happens more often than not, and I think this has something to do with living a few years, is that at some point during the evening it appears that the author is doing everything possible to include me if only I would just sit back and enjoy the ride. They invite me to look around, see what I can see, and be glad I�m not driving.

    Exit The King is one of those enormous evenings at the theatre that not only makes you glad you�re not driving, it makes you glad that you didn�t fasten your seatbelt before takeoff. Being tossed into the stratosphere of a theatre is a dazzling experience.

    More, please.




    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    What would you do if you were told you had an hour and a half to live? Like anyone else, you'd want to prolong the inevitable, which is what Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield did by extending Eugene Ionesco's 90-minute one-act play "Exit the King" to more than two hours and adding an intermission. We're told upfront that the King will die by the end of the play but this allows Rush, who also stars as the 400-year-old King Berenger, the time to cavort in all his glory in an extraordinary performance complete with tirades, scepters, and pratfalls as he attempts to stop time before it stops him.

    A timely revival, Rush and Armfield have translated and updated Ionesco's absurdist drama into a circus of political and satirical commentary that fits in with current affairs of state and subjects. Just as Nero fiddled while Rome burned, and Bush read to children while terrorists attacked, King Berenger partied while his empire crumbled. His own mental instability and clownish antics parallel the decrepitude of the world around him.

    According to his first wife Queen Marguerite, played by the no-nonsense Susan Sarandon, he must now accept his destiny and face death with dignity. Married to the King for 283 years, it's understandable that she can't wait for him to die � enough already. Besides, the kingdom has come apart like the cracks in the castle's walls, hidden by scenic designer Dale Ferguson's droopy draperies.

    Life is already non-existent outside the castle walls as earthquakes, floods, and yes, economic ruin, have scared away all but the most elderly who had nowhere to go. Years of war and neglect of infrastructure can do that apparently. Who knew?

    But the younger Queen Marie, the King's second wife, can't accept that the King must die. A one-woman rooting section -- all sweetness and light and kisses -- she believes that love equals life. Ah, youth. In contrast to her cajoling and caressing, Marguerite sarcastically and bluntly removes all emotion from the equation. Why fill the King's head with delusions, she wants to know. Let him embrace the universality of death. It's a process and it must be done right.

    And this process is done right with a stellar cast who breathes life and laughter into Ionesco's existentialist vision as surely as death is imminent for the King. Sarandon returns to Broadway after a 37-year hiatus with assurance and bravado, while Rush shows his physical comedic edge in this debut Broadway performance. The two have smoking chemistry, and even though the King hardly looks at his first Queen, her words cut him to his core.

    Lauren Ambrose as Marie gushes youthful exuberance with just the right amount of na�vet� and annoyance. Andrea Martin as the overworked and never paid maid, Juliette, is a scene-stealer as she arranges and rearranges the train of Her Majesty's gown. Referring to the throne room as the living room, and literally sweeping centuries of dust under the rug, Juliette is the one who most clearly brings out the ridiculousness of the situation.

    In this third play of the "Berenger Cycle," the first two being "The Killer" and "Rhinoceros," Ionesco has inextricably entwined politics and art, life and love, and fantasy and truth. And all come to an end on a stage that resembles that striking of a circus set in which the process of dying plays itself out. We are exhorted to accept this inevitable conclusion as we watch a life ill-lived, in a world ill-cared for, by people ill-equipped to do the right thing. Laughing at the antics of the ruling class, we know that Ionesco's absurdist 1962 dramedy is really 2009's dead-on satire. The king is dead; long live the king!


    What the press had to say.....

    What the press had to say.....

    "brutally funny revival."
    Ben Brantley
    New York Times

    "this unusual, seldom-seen play, in its first Broadway revival since 1968, is worthy of an audience."
    Joe Dziemianowicz
    New York Daily News

    "possibly the longest, oddest, funniest agony in the history of the theater."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli
    New York Post

    "The audience certainly had a boisterous good time."
    John Simon

    "Rush has a grand time surveying the depths of comedy and pathos offered by Berenger. It's a flamboyant, hilariously physical performance that becomes profoundly moving"
    Elysa Gardner
    USA Today

    "If an evening-long death scene isn't your idea of exhilarating theater, you haven't been to "Exit the King.""
    Linda Winner

    "This is a landmark production of a great play. Miss Exit the King at your peril."
    Erik Haagensen
    Back Stage

    "Geoffrey Rush earns the crown for Broadway's most entertaining despot." & "both funny and moving, much like life itself."
    Roma Torre

    "Geoffrey Rush, ..., manages a mesmerizing high-wire act of balancing outrageous comedy and overwhelming tragedy in a fascinating revival"
    Michael Kuchwara
    Associated Press

    "the play's relevance is secondary to the virtuoso work of its lead actor, who unleashes a dazzling arsenal of mime, clowning and physical techniques to swerve in an instant between comedy and pathos, keeping the audience riveted to him through every hairpin turn."
    David Rooney