Exit the King at Palm Beach Dramaworks
Challenging Work Reigns Supreme In this time of shrinking economies and underwhelming support for live performance, it's the norm for theaters to take the secure road. Local troupes tend to mount the tried and true – Neil Simon plays or another go 'round of toe-tapping, familiar musicals. So, for a theater company to take a chance on an absurdist play, they need to have the confidence to pull off such a feat, and an audience that is willing to go along for the ride. Such is the case with Palm Beach Dramaworks' presentation of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King. From the direction by William Hayes assisted by Lynnette Barkley to the wonderfully over-the-top and narcissistic portrayal of King Berenger by the talented Colin McPhillamy, this is a production that shouts from its rooftop: "We're doing something out of the ordinary and damn you're gonna love it!" And, there is a lot to love, which is difficult to imagine with a play that is about the inevitability of death and a selfish 400-year-old king. Ionesco has planted a device early in the play that has Berenger's first wife, Queen Marguerite, telling the King and theatergoers that, by the end of the play, Berenger will die. ... So, at least you know from the get go how it's going to wind up. The play, written in 1962, got a redux on Broadway in 2009, getting rave reviews for its star, Geoffrey Rush (who won a Tony Award for his portrayal). Rush and director Neil Armfield also updated the script for the 21st century, and this is the production Dramaworks has staged, as well. Despite it being one of Ionesco's most linear plays, which also makes it one of his most accessible, there are elements... including bad puns and buffoonery. But when there's a thorough understanding of how to highlight these devices – Dramaworks does an incredible job of this – they serve to underscore the philosophical message of Exit the King. The play also depends on a tight ensemble to keep the action moving. The supporting actors to McPhillamy's wonderfully bigger-than-life portrayal need to be up to the task, and, indeed they are. Angie Rodosh plays Marguerite unsympathetically, keeping the icy queen under wraps until a beautifully delivered monologue at the end, where she talks the King through accepting his fate. It's eloquent, poignant and Rodosh's ability to exhume just the right amount of sympathy is something to relish. As a side note, to see her in this role on the heels of her wonderful portrayal in the recent Dramaworks production of A Delicate Balance adds yet another dimension to her performance. Claire Brownell as Queen Marie, in her Alice-in-Wonderland inspired garb, amps up the hysterics of the vapid trophy wife to hilarious comic effect, while Rob Donohoe's crazy Doctor delivers the icing on the cake in the absurd humor department. Ionesco gives The Doctor the sub-roles of executioner, bacteriologist and astrologist, and Donohoe has obviously taken the playwright's cue to heart. His doctor is part Dr. Frankenstein, part Sydney Omarr. Elizabeth Dimon as Juliette, the maid and nurse, uses a number of sight gags to her advantage including a feather duster that's attached to her apron with a string and another where she emerges from a stream wearing swim goggles and in possession of a plastic fish. Jim Ballard as The Guard has many tasks, but he is also charged with spouting a pre-death eulogy that touts Berenger's many achievements. ...The true star of the show, as well he needs to be, is McPhillamy, whose King Berenger is astonishingly layered. By the time the curtain falls, you're as rung out as McPhillamy; his mastery of creating an emotional rollercoaster is well worth the ride. There are so many small elements, too, that contribute to this production's success including the wonderful scenic design by Michael Amico, that serves to highlight the crumbling of the kingdom, showing Berenger's once sprawling throne rooms now a pitiful mess and wonderfully contrasting Leslye Menshouse's colorfully regal and inventive costuming. There's superb lighting and sound design by John Hall and Matt Corey respectively that helps to imagine the world outside of Berenger's kingdom. All in all, it is wholly satisfying to see challenging work rise to the top. This Exit the King reigns supreme.