Geoffrey Rush’s portrayal of the megalomaniacal ruler, King Berenger, in the Broadway revival of Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist comedy Exit the King is pure genius. Granted Ionesco may be an acquired taste, but working with a new translation by Neil Armfield , who also directs, Rush’s brilliant interpretation of the dying monarch carries the rarely seen play to tragicomic heights. The King’s incompetence has left his country in near ruin, giving the evening a timeliness that feels all the more relevant in the wake of the Bush administration.
When the play begins Susan Sarandon, who plays King Berenger’s first wife Queen Marguerite, informs the King “You are going to die at the end of the play.” But despite her efforts and those of the other members of the court, which include Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under) as the King’s mistress Queen Marie, Andrea Martin as a hilarious lady in waiting, Brian Hutchison a sublime riot as The Guard and William Sadler as the Doctor, the King refuses to relinquish any control even though he has been in power for over 400 years.
Striding the stage in his pajamas with a long cape trailing about ten feet behind him and his crown slightly askew Rush commands the audience with an unyielding virtuosity that blurs the lines of tragedy and farce. His dying King Berenger holds on steadfast in utter denial of the truth. He delivers a capricious physical performance that embodies the expressionist style with a delicate balance of ambiguities that constantly remain visceral. His vivid portrayal of human frailties is simply sensational as he takes us on an insightful journey to his ultimate acceptance of his eminent death.
If the other’s member of the outstanding cast are not up to Rush’s theatrically stylized standard, they all nonetheless serve the text with varying degrees of achievement. The ending is especially difficult with Marguerite holding Berenger’s hand as he looks death straight in the face. Sarandon saves her best work for these final moments, giving the proceedings a poignantly moving fadeout.
Armfield’s production, coming to Broadway via Melbourne, Australia, where Rush headed a critically acclaimed staging in 2007, is decidedly one of the most exciting events of the season full of rich ideas and metaphysical metaphors.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
Exit the King opened on Broadway at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, on March 26, 2009. Tickets are available though www.Telecharge.com, at the box office or by phone at 212-239-6200.