“Those clouds … I thought I’d banished the clouds. … We’ve had enough rain. Enough, I said!”
Leading a life of absolute power has made King Berenger ill-equipped to handle the prospect of his imminent death in Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 play “Exit the King,” which is currently being presented at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in a first-class production directed by Bonnie Monte (also the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director).
Theater experts will tell you that Ionesco, a Romania native who wrote mostly in French (this production uses a translation by Donald Watson), was part of the Theatre of the Absurd movement, and that “Exit the King” was considered avant-garde when it debuted, more than half a century ago. All you really need to know, though, is that it’s both funny and profound, and still seems daringly unconventional in the 21st century.
In the magical world Ionesco creates, King Berenger — well played by Brent Harris, who manages to be insufferably pompous one moment and heartbreakingly vulnerable the next — has ruled over his kingdom for hundreds of years. He has power not only over his subjects, but over nature itself, and thinks the rules of mortality don’t apply to him.
“Why was I born, if it wasn’t forever?,” he asks.
At another point, he says he’ll die “when I want to.”
But others in the play, including his imperious wife, Queen Marguerite (Marion Adler), and cold, efficient Doctor (Greg Watanabe), somehow have inside information that his end is near. They tell him exactly how much time he has left, which happens to be exactly how much time is left in the play. And they seem to be right: The universe itself seems to be collapsing. Mars and Saturn have collided and the Sun has lost much of its power, the Doctor announces.
We also hear reports of chaos in the kingdom, though the King remains sequestered in his castle with his inner circle. Joining the him, Marguerite and the Doctor are his younger, more adoring other wife, Queen Marie (Jesmille Darbouze); the sometimes comically sullen housekeeper Juliette (Kristie Dale Sanders); and a loyal, armor-clad guard (Jon Barker).
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously theorized that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’m not sure if Berenger hits all five, but he does indeed pass through several stages as he becomes increasing weak, helpless and, ultimately, childlike. Marguerite observes that he has turned into “a wrinkled little boy.”
Nice touches in the set design, by Brittany Vasta, include a throne that’s in dire need of some reupholstering, and cracks in the palace walls that grow bigger, before our eyes, as the King’s hold on life gets more tenuous.
“Exit the King” is about death. But it’s also about change — political change, societal change, even climate change — and the way we stubbornly believe things will remain as they are even though everything we know about life tells us that, in reality, the only thing we can count on is impermanence.
“Exit the King” is at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison through Aug. 28; visit shakespearenj.org.