The King is Dead ! Long live the King!” Was Ionesco thinking of that traditional cry of mortality and the mantle passed on, when he wrote Exit the King, now onstage at Live Oak Theatre, produced by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley, at the start of Ionesco’s centennial year?
The play opens with Jose Garcia, cutting a fine figure as The Guard, towering in his bearskin by the proscenium, hailing “Long live the King!”—as Norman MacLeod, regally appointed, strolls onstage, and just as vaguely, wanders off.
That cry, and dozens of comic variations, will punctuate the action and repeat scraps of the dialogue, ad absurdum, until just before the denouement.
“Theatre of the Absurd”—Martin Esslin, at one point at Stanford, formulated that moniker to label what Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, Arthur Adamov and others were doing in the postwar Paris theater, something that would spread around the world, and not just in theater—aided in no small way by such a tag on the goods.
The movement, really less movement than phenomenon, was originally dubbed “Le théâtre nouveau,” to indicate a use of prewar avant-garde techniques without whatever ideology. In this case, the dislocations, surprise conjunctions, non sequiturs, tautologies and oxymorons of Surrealism are apparent. But Esslin copped the term Kierkegaard introduced into literary and philosophical lingo in the mid-19th century, revived by Heidegger and the Existentialists: “The Absurd.” It sold the goods, but has ever since snarled up the reactions of spectators, worried they can’t enjoy what’s onstage without some weighty footnote explaining the sad gravity (and erudition) of it all. (In particular, the appreciation of Beckett has suffered from this sort of free-floating guilt.)
But Ionesco’s plays are like farces further parodied by playing with theater convention. “Absurd” Theatre mixes “Legitimate Theater” with vaudeville, conventional dialogue with the conversational, dream logic with rational plot lines, fusing opposites so that, as Antonin Artaud said of Euripides in distinction to the other Tragedians, “We don’t know just where we are.”
King Berenger (the name for several of Ionesco’s reluctant heroes, besides the famed bourgeois poet and songwriter of the 19th century) strikes a good chord, MacLeod playing him a little in the style of English Panto, a fairytale told familiarly, tongue-in-cheek. The King—who seemed young only yesterday—needs to be told, one of his consorts opines (Beth Chastain as Queen Marguerite), that he must die: “The sun’s already deaf to his commands” ... and there’s the hint the Queen is impatient with him. She is backed up by The Doctor (also Astrologizer and a slew of other titles, portrayed somewhat floridly by Alecks Rundell). Queen Marie (Satya Soleil Starr, playing a true ingenue), the other consort, who “can only laugh or cry,” tries to block the news, then charm the old monarch—splendid in his ermine cloak, sash with medals and blue pajamas—making sure she’s always the center of his attention. Melanie Curry is sympathetic, when she’s not waspish, as Juliette, court maid and general factotum.
Over the top Surrealist burlesque alternates with emotional, almost maudlin scenes of the King falling down, but denying any infirmity, unable to stand up. This produces the peculiar pathos the Absurdists are known for, with Ionesco’s personal stamp. The audience is never sure—unlike Queen Marie—whether it should cry or laugh.
Finally, the cardboard-patched throne room begins to disappear, and the doomed monarch, now blind, is divested of his outward accouterments by Marguerite—Beth Chastain’s best moments—and, at her prompting, must learn to walk on his own again, towards his end ...
Jerome Solberg, AE boardmember and a familiar face onstage and off, makes his maiden voyage as director; Roger Shrag likewise as producer. Shu Ping Guan’s set makes a virtue of Ansurdist juxtaposition, self-propelled thrones backed by cardboard. Phil Ramey’s sound design is spot on. Alecks Rundell, The Doctor, also designed the lights. And Helen Slomowitz’s costuming is, as always, excellent.
EXIT THE KING
Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (and at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 19) at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Ave. $10-$12. 649-5999. aeofberkeley.org.