All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The way death affects life interests me so much, I attend, when possible, a monthly group discussion called The Death Café in Center City Philadelphia.
It’s not the morbidity of death that fascinates. Nor the macabre. It’s the way it informs life. Of course, I’ll take that trip to Copenhagen on my last dime. Life is finite. Remember that!
Even if one puts death in perspective, the fading and loss that frequently accompanies it, the demise of one’s person can be personally and intrinsically dramatic. I was with my parents and grandfather when they died. I insisted that an EMT try to revive a friend who was pronounced dead, a person who returned to life 45 seconds later. (Thank you, Jim Christy, for the gin and tonic you slipped me on that occasion.) The course to the end doesn’t go smooth.
Even for Berenger, a powerful king who has been command of many lives and puts an added value on his own royal existence. Justified or not.
In a zanily creative theatrical equivalent of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s “On Death and Dying,” playwright Eugene Ionesco shrewdly, comically, and solemnly depicts the defiance and acceptance of the inevitable. With his piercing wit and equally sharp perception, Ionesco entertainingly, but firmly, shows the banality, horror, vanity, and ultimate inescapability of death.
By choosing as his subject a king who wallows in his power and privilege, Ionesco illustrates how death comes to us all, even to a complacent creature who believes at one point he can just order it to go away.
The playwright’s “Exit the King” does not only delve into Berenger’s response to his loss of physical and mental vitality. It shows the reactions of people around him — the practical first wife, the weeping second wife, the cynical soldier who has been witness to the king at his grandest, most grandiose, most foolish, and most confused times, and the doctor who professionally and passionlessly ticks off the time left before Berenger must expire. Will he or nil he.
“Exit the King” is labelled as absurdist, as all of Ionesco is. I think “absurdity” is too broad and ameliorating a term for “Exit the King.” It is a play of masterful clarity. Berenger and Ionesco both have flights of fancy, and fantasy, but nothing registers as arcane or too far off the main point. A man is dying, and though his doctor and first wife stoically await and prepare for the end, Berenger will rage mightily, become irrational with his family and attendants, and attempt to impose his majestic authority, only to come, unwilling and unpleasantly to the realization he is about to end. The way we all know we will end.
I’ve seen various ways people respond to their final moments. My father, though plagued with severe dementia, watched intently and even wanted to take a walk before he passed into a rather peaceful state and declined into death. My grandfather opened his eyes every 10 minutes or so, and when he saw me, smiled and went back to his rest, only to wake again, look again, smile again, and rest again. I realized he would not agree to die while I was watching. So I let go of his hand, moved to a shadow outside of his sight range, and saw him look for the last time. Within two minutes, I called the nurse to tell her my grandfather had passed. My mother was the most amazing and heart-wrenching. Weakened to a bed-ridden state by cancer, she rose from her bed, stood on it and shrieked I had to save her from death, that if she stayed on that bed, she would die, and how would I feel about that? Nothing I did could comfort her or stop her horrors which, I learned later from hospice workers, were common. Even morphine could not still the anger, rage, and will to live. I helped her from bed to a chair, held her while she raged, and tried to administer more morphine. Her actual passing occurred calmly in a hospice, but the two nights she abandoned her helpless state and exhibited superhuman strength in asserting her desire for life were harrowing.
Watching Berenger in “Exit the King” recalled these passings to me in an oddly cathartic way. The Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium production of Ionesco’s play was the first “Exit the King” I’d seen since my parents’ individual passing. I saw how cunningly Ionesco included traits of all of the experiences I witnessed. It was enlightening to learn, as I often do via theater, that our personal experiences are universal and can be put on a stage for all to understand.
Just as I think “absurdist” is too excusing a term for “Exit the King,” I think Tina Brock’s approach to plays as deep as Ionesco’s is anything but ridiculous.
Comic and unsentimental as it appropriately is, Brock’s production plumbs and displays all that Ionesco knows and wants to convey about death, diminishment, lost ability, and the reactions of the soon-to-be mourners. There is a wise, serious sensibility behind the fun Brock and her company provide. Robb Hutter, Philadelphia’s equivalent of a LaMama leading man from the 1960s, captures both the arrogant, commanding nature of the king and the person who tries to defy death. Unsuccessfully of course. Patricia Durante balances Hutter’s suitably clownish take on Berenger by being diamond hard and supremely practical as the king wends towards his demise. Durante’s long speech towards the end of the play encapsulates the reality of death and underscores its place in the natural order of things. She is an actress who rates more exposure in local productions.
Susan Giddings adds to her usual knack for getting offbeat characters just right by portraying the doctor as a realistic scientist who is only interested in the facts and even at the play’s most fanciful times, reminds that the king has one hour and ten minutes, forty minutes, or forty seconds to live. Giddings looks like a Medieval mystic, especially with the mustache penciled across her upper lip and cheeks. She provides humor and style while playing a character who is totally humorless and interested only in the realistic, scientific process of mortality.
Anna Lou Hearn is a puling, spoiled younger queen, Marie. Bob Schmidt has lots of fun exposing the intimacies of court life and revealing asides from the king’s life and battles. Jenna Kuerzi endows the elder queen’s waiting woman with the contradictory air of being better than her station yet knowing her place.
Best of all, Brock’s production illuminates all Ionesco has to say about death, its approach, and its response from various quarters. Through performed as a cartoon, its elaborate ink-drawn set and various whimsical props adding to the humorous tone, and done as if death was a trifling matter to all but the king and the younger widow who will no longer be pampered and indulged, Brock’s staging reveals the stages of decline and the king’s reactions towards them. Robust and tyrannical at the time Giddings’s doctor issues his diagnosis, you see the king as he comes to grips that he is no longer able to be bombastic, that his limbs have joined a cadre of his subjects in not responding to his commands.
Berenger is not allowed to perish in a personal vacuum. His kingdom loses population as he loses life. The world crumbles as if dependent on Berenger’s point of view rather than the cold but intelligent pronouncements by Marguerite, the older queen, that nature is proceeding as usual and the businesslike humans will sort out any mess that requires attention when the moment of death arrives.
It to Ionesco’s, and Brock’s, individual credits that the ideas of fading physically into death and Marguerite’s discerning analysis exist so tellingly, and so neatly, while presented side by side.
Hutter can don helmets, brandish swords, and bark punitive orders, but you can tell that Berenger is a manqué, a monarch born to his inherited post but not up to its demands or requisite mettle. Hutter’s Berenger is a person of genuine power who wields it like a petulant child confusing authority with practical thought or wisdom.
In other words, he is a typical politician, but he is also one who must be obeyed and knows it.
Although “Exit the King” has only six characters, you get the impression Berenger rules a retinue. Though represented only by Schmidt’s soldier and Kuerzi’s maid, they stand for servants of all stripes everywhere who must listen to, and who subtly criticize, a despot.
Even before we know of his illness, we are aware that Berenger’s subjects are unhappy and affected by his narcissism and neglect. Even while playing the king as a clown, Hutter preens, postures, and makes a show of his royal clout. These displays of power will soon give way to Berenger’s resistance to death. His orders will ring of calls to take his people with him, or instead of him, to his end. He will negate the doctor, eschew the pragmatic Marguerite, and seek solace from the fawningly attentive Marie, the younger queen, and the occasional noble (yet jaundiced) memory of his guard.
While Marguerite is sanguine about Berenger’s passing, Marie is beside herself, not so much because of tender feelings for her husband but because she enjoys her role as mistress of all she surveys.
Marie is not as commanding, or as acerb, as Marguerite. She is all heart, but her heart is sentimental and doesn’t wend towards romance as much as to the jewelry, cosmetic attention, and obsequious fawning she receives as a queen.
Marie is someone who likes her place and hasn’t grasped the responsible aspects of it as Marguerite has.
As versatile and entertaining as Hutter is in Brock’s production, it is Durante’s Marguerite that anchors. Durante rises above and beyond the storybook style of the show to provide Ionesco’s reality checks. All else can be frothy and madcap, but Durante’s Marguerite speaks and behaves in dead earnest. (Pardon the pun.) She is all business and provides a telling contrast to all else that is going on. If matters become bizarre, Marguerite, more than the doctor announcing the measured passage of life as minutes to go, returns your mind to the serious, perhaps sad, business at hand. A man is dying, a man with many duties that must be addressed in addition to the act of his passing. He is man Marguerite alone can denote truly, as she is the only one who seemed independent of him. As a replaced first wife, she has her settlement and her own loyalties, especially from the maid, Juliette, and she can proceed with a cool eye and no qualms about a loss she already experienced when Berenger preferred Marie.
Marie, in comparison, is a mess. Played with exaggerated cupidity and childishness by a constantly crying Hearn, she stands for all the worst royal indulgence can produce. She is as selfish as Berenger, and as narcissistic, even if she claims to be sobbing for Berenger’s impending death and moving to comfort and coddle him when no one else will.
Marie’s crocodile tears may pretend to show heart, but is the doctor and Marguerite that engage your mind. They are duly worried about the simultaneously dissolving kingdom and restoring some sense of normality when Berenger passed.
Durante is especially impressive as a woman who understands the business at hand and goes to it using common sense and intellect. Giddings also earns high praise for the easygoing certainty of the doctor and the authority she brings to the role.
Erica Hoelscher’s designs for set and costumes capture and enhance the mood Brock’s production creates. The set is one large drawing that looks like something Edward Gorey might have imagined, although Hoelscher’s work is let imposingly Gothic and more fitted to let to pick out some fractured gargoyles or two. I particularly likes the screaming yet comic figure nestled in the fireplace.
From a practical point of view, Hoelscher’s set also gives Brock, Hutter, and other actors windows to use effectively. I likes the placement of the alcove the set provides for Schmidt’s soldier. Kate Coots painted the scenery and takes a bow with Hoelscher for its wit.
In terms of costumes, I liked the Disney princess gowns, furs, and curly long blond wig Hearn wore as Marguerite and the tight, almost pinched suit Giddings wore at the doctor.
Brock and Ionseco put dying in perspective by isolating the person who is dying and keeping us from getting emotional about him. I found it interesting, and at times disturbing, that my sympathy and highest regard went to Marguerite and the doctor as opposed to Berenger or the inconsolable Marie.
Hutter did not engender sympathy. He more involved you with the process Berenger endured between realizing he was losing strength and energy.That visual representation of loss is profound, but iIt’s Marguerite’s speech late in the play that puts death in perspective. Hutter was excellent at showing the licentiousness and capriciousness of Berenger as a ruler and lover. He was also wonderful at being flummoxed when his desire to live and recoiling from mortality spirals into the death the doctor reminded us, from the outset, would occur. The grim moment comes when the man has no option but to concede he is about to die. In character, Berenger does not face this bravely or with resignation but with a look of shock. It is a riveting moment in the production.
Brock also served as sound designer, in which she brought a sharp mix of often contradictory sentiments and moods to the production via music by disparate composers such as David Byrne, John Zorn, Sergio Mendes, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (although Mendes is probably more a performer than a writer).
“Exit the King,” produced by the Idiopathic Ridulopathy Consortium, runs through Sunday, September 20, at the Independence Theatre on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. The production is also considered an offering of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival that continues through September 20. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $22 and can be ordered by calling 1-800-838-3006 or by visiting www.idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org or www.fringearts.com.