ETERNAL PRAYERS Maynard and Hancock-Brainerd (foreground, left and center).
Playwright Eugene Ionesco, a progenitor of Theater of the Absurd along with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, put a lot of himself into Exit the King instead of keeping his usual ironic or satiric distance.
The Wilbury Group is presenting an excellent production of the darkly humorous drama, directed by Rebecca Noon and Josh Short, at 95 Empire (formerly Perishable Theatre) through January 15.
It's not that there are autobiographical elements in this play, although Ionesco might have wished so since the title character has had supernatural powers. No, it's more a psychological parallel, since the playwright had a lifelong morbid preoccupation with death, as does King Berenger.
Although the exit refers to his shuffling off his mortal coil, this 1962 play is not the last of Ionesco's Berenger Cycle. The first was The Killer (1958), in which murder cuts short Berenger's elation over an airborne transcendent experience. The next was his most popular play, Rhinoceros (1959), which makes fun of conformism by having townsfolk turn into the dangerous beasts, baffling hapless Berenger. Then came Exit the King and, despite said king's death, the next year saw A Stroll In the Air, a flashback echoing young Berenger's joy in the first play at being able to fly.
Knowing the full range of experiences and difficulties Berenger (Jed Hancock-Brainerd) finds himself in is important for appreciating his plight in this play. Berenger is an Everyman, our stand-in as well as the playwright's during the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to before we all exit.
It's also a cute touch that he is King Berenger I, optimistically the first in a line of royal successors. But the king we meet is hardly one we want to breed if we care about our species. He's in his jammies throughout as well as crown and purple cape, hardly a dignified leader.
He has two wives. The young and beautiful Queen Marie (Lara Maynard) loves him and dotes on him and obviously would be happy to fill the castle with royal rugrats. But she is by far the beta queen, never getting her way. Even the sassy maid, Juliette (Melissa Bowler), makes fun of her, even when at one point Marie is in tearful misery.
The alpha regent is Queen Marguerite (Rebecca Noon), haughty, imperious, and mean as a constipated snake. "This is the end of your happy days," she says with sinister pleasure to Queen Marie. The end coming is the imminent death of the king, from some unspecified malady. He is more than 400 years old, after all, so he might simply be finally falling apart, as it appears from a lengthy description toward the end, acted out with entertainingly loose-limbed exaggeration.
Adding to the grim atmosphere is the doctor (Bobby Casey), who also serves as executioner and other various functions including official bacteriologist, marching about in a bloodstained smock. There is also a guard (Jeff Hodge) who loves to stand at attention and deliver stentorian announcements, such as a premature "the King is dead! Long live the King!"