By ANNE SIEGEL
American Players Theatre, located in rural Spring Green, Wisconsin, has added Ionesco’s rarely-performed 1962 absurdist comedy, Exit the King, to its current line-up.
Playing alongside a half-dozen other shows (that focus on Restoration humor and follies, Shakespeare’s timeless themes and a hilarious rendition of Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday), Exit the King may seem like an odd choice for this repertory company’s roster.
But this skillfully wrought production is among the season’s highlights. Ionesco wrote this play as he faced his own fears about mortality. Without making Exit the King overtly political, there’s no denying the similarities between The King (James Ridge) and our current political leaders. When Ridge initially dismisses the idea that he is dying, who cannot think of Trump’s announcement that, should he be found guilty in the current investigation of his ties to Russia, he will conveniently pardon himself?
That’s one of many examples which come to mind when watching this fascinating play directed by Tim Ocel, who in past years has directed a number of APT shows. James Ridge is riveting in the title role. Ridge is a somewhat short, thin man, and is made to look older than his years. At first, his character appears in striped pajamas, a crown and an ermine-trimmed cape, visually suggesting that something in this picture is extremely wrong. Before he arrives, the King’s Doctor (John Pribyl) shares the sad news of the King’s imminent demise with “old” Queen Marguerite (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and the much younger Queen Marie (Cassia Thompson).
The pragmatic Queen Marguerite insists that the King be told the news immediately, so he can prepare for the end of his reign. Arnold plays Marguerite with a regal, yet icy, perfection. She is as rock steady as they come, especially when compared to Queen Marie’s (literally) weeping willow. Thompson excels in her role as the sexy, exuberant queen who is more interested in saving the king’s feelings than his kingdom.
And, in fact, it seems that our king has been a lousy ruler. According to Marguerite, he has ruled for 400 years. In that time, his kingdom has suffered. Its fields are barren, its trees are dying, its cities are ruined by flooding, and the bulk of its population has moved elsewhere. The next one to leave town permanently, it seems, is the king himself.
Exit the King is sometimes referred to as Ionesco’s “lesson in dying.” During the play, the king models Dr. Kubler-Ross’ seven stages of grief. At first, Ridge denies the inevitability of his death. He insists that he will not die unless he wills it to be so. He says this even as his doctor points out that he will be dead by the end of the play. Queen Marguerite “helpfully” keeps track of the play’s existing minutes to remind the king of how much time he has left.
As noted by another critic, the King declares that “his prognosis is nothing more than fake news, and besides, even if he were about to die, he could surely order himself healed.”
But that’s at the beginning of the play, when the King possesses most of his mental faculties and even an itch for the boudoir and Queen Marie. (Stormy Daniels, anyone?) Over the course of the play, Ridge loses his power to control, his mind and finally, his senses.
Two of the king’s minions provide comic relief. Juliette (Sarah Day), the castle’s maid, bristles when one of the royals chides her about her lack of housekeeping skills. Her response to this rebuff is repeatedly referring to the throne room as “the living room.” Similarly, Casey Hoekstra plays a dim-witted Guard who serves as resident town crier. His senseless series of “announcements” continue until the king finally tells him to knock it off. So much for the social media of its day.
There are few onstage props to suggest a specific time or place (set designer: Michael Ganio). A few painted faux marble platforms are topped by an unpainted wooden throne. Although it is not wobbly, the throne is stabilized by wood trusses. The king seems more in control when he sits on the throne than when he is flailing around the set. As the news of dying begins to sink in, Ridge seems to lapse into a more dreamlike state. At the end, he is nearly comatose. However, the audience is seeing him pass beyond life and into the first few moments of his death.
Not surprisingly, it is the steadfast Queen Marguerite who assists him in this journey. With a glance or a tip of her head, Arnold indicates that her character has accepted her place in the king’s fractured world.
The only flaw in this otherwise seamless production is that it seems to drag a bit near the end of its 90 minutes. The king could die about 15 minutes sooner, in this reviewer’s opinion.
Otherwise, American Players Theatre has staged a triumphantly sparse but effective production. It’s one that makes us consider the end that awaits us all.
Exit the King plays through September 27 in the indoor, 201-seat indoor Touchstone theater. For tickets, contact the box office at 608-588-2361 or click on their website here.