No night. No day. No thirst. Nothing. That’s what happens when you die, even with dignity, according to the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco in his circus-like riff on dying, Exit the King, which is being given an extraordinary production starring Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre impeccably directed by Neil Armfield.
If you have never thought of what happens after you expire you might want to keep the lights on at home when you retire for the evening after seeing this show. And then again, dying has never seemed more amusing. Go figure.
The Kingdom that King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) rules has come into some hard times – wars and such and the treasury is nearly bankrupt (sound familiar?) – due to his lack of interest in his subjects and total absorption with himself. And now the four hundred year old monarch is dying. In pajamas, slippers and regal robes. He has the length of the play to expire and we watch as he gradually diminishes before our eyes. Scepter becoming cane. Wheelchair replacing throne. It’s comical at first until the reality of his dying hits us in the gut and becomes heartbreaking.
Susan Sarandon as Queen Marguerite, the King’s first wife, is regal incarnate and behaves as the tower of tough realism, giving the King timely updates about his departure and giving him no hope whatsoever. He is doomed. She is surrounded by over the top clowns. His second, younger wife, Queen Marie (Lauren Ambrose) all emotion, all loving, all crying with majestic mascara running down her cheeks. The Guard (Brian Hutchison) in full armor, announcing with great difficulty the progress of the King. The quack Doctor (William Sadler) looking very much like Professor Irwin Corey and the delightful Andrea Martin who as the maid and nurse maid to the King, Juliette – with her quick steps and quick curtsies and comic delivery and jumping over the huge trains of the very witty costumes by Dale Ferguson (who is also responsible for the fabulous circus-like French inspired set) just about pulls the trains out from the royal family, thereby almost stealing the show.
But the King will not allow that to happen. He wants to die when he is ready. He wants to be in control. He does not want anyone upstaging him in life or in death. And he succeeds. Geoffrey Rush’s performance in what theatre is all about. Why actors want to act. He is simply sensational. Disintegrating before our eyes while always having one last breath, one last order, one last wish before he succumbs. He is wobbly, weak and wondrous in his portrayal of a man, yes a man, who has ruined his country and has only thought of himself until it is too late. Not that it matters much. It doesn’t. In the end there is no night. No day. No thirst. Nothing.
But there is and always will be theatre. The theatrical tradition that can summon us to think. To react. And to be entertained. Every other play on Broadway pales in comparison. www.ExitTheKingonBroadway.com