Romanian-French playwright Eugene Ionesco, one of the mid-20th-century’s Theatre of the Absurdists, was only in his early 50s when he wrote “Exit the King,” but he’d had a serious illness that apparently inspired this funny, tragic and preternaturally insightful play about dying, now onstage at Exit Theatre in The City.
King Berenger (Don Wood, better at depicting the character’s false confidence than at plumbing the depths of his despair) is said to be 400 years old; he has outstayed his welcome, according to his first wife, the stern and matter-of-fact Queen Marguerite (Christina Augello) and his untrustworthy doctor (Justin Lucas), who’s also the kingdom’s executioner, bacteriologist and more, and who examines his patients at a safe distance, through a telescope.
Formerly all-powerful — he could command the sun to rise and his subjects to do his bidding — the King’s abilities are deteriorating, just as his kingdom is falling into ruin around him.
A flustered maid/RN (Valerie Façhman) doesn’t know whom to obey now that everything is in flux. A pompous palace guard with a halberd (Ron Talbot) makes frequent, hilariously pointless pronouncements about the king’s condition (“His Majesty’s gone gaga!”).
Only the king’s beloved and adoring second wife, the overwrought Queen Maria (an excellent Mikka Bonel), wants him to go on living, or, at the very least, to protect him from the awful truth of his imminent demise- — which, announces Queen Marguerite calmly, will take place in an hour and a half, at the end of the show.
Which of course it does.
And if, at, yes, almost an hour and a half, the intermission-less play feels too long, that’s as it should be: Berenger’s unwilling, and terrified, descent — from the physical indignities of old age and complacent denial of the inevitable to eventual submission, dementia and terminalhor darkness — is just as long and uncomfortable as what we the audience are experiencing.
And Ionesco’s morbid musings are uncomfortable indeed.
Director Stuart Bousel’s boldly stylized production, with Donald Watson’s accessible translation, aims to strike a balance between the playwright’s wacky humor and the existential horror he so clearly illuminates.
But the acting, ranging from tentative to hammy, is uneven.
Still, Ionesco’s writing triumphs.
“Who will give his life for the poor old king?” Berenger, finally convinced of the impending doom, shouts out the window.
And, “Why was I born if it wasn’t forever?” he asks plaintively.
Cushioned by zaniness, the truths feel eternal.
Exit the King
Where: Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; closes April 7
Tickets: $20 to $30