The small crowd that gathered in Adams Memorial Theatre to watch the Cap & Bells production of Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco on Thursday night was unsure whether they were supposed to laugh. There were times when a joke was clearly made and the audience laughed, and times when we heard the sound of a “Ha” or two only from a few people. As the play went on, it struck a more serious note, alternating between rhyming lines and declarations from the guard character.
The performance begins with declarations from the guard (Jasper Burget ’18) and the presentation of each character: King Berenger the First (Michael Rubel ’19), Queen Marguerite (Madeline Walsh ’18), Queen Marie (Emma Mandel ’19), the doctor (Isabel Benjamin ’19) and Juliette (Caroline McArdle ’18). From this small cast of characters comes an hour and a half of banter and descent into the stages of death.
The first scene finds Queen Marguerite and Queen Marie discussing some distressing news, but they don’t specify what exactly is wrong, only that it is relevant to the king. Marguerite and Marie argue over whether or not he should be told, how the news is to be revealed and how Marie and King Berenger’s relationship has been bad for the kingdom. Finally King Berenger runs on stage, with a big smile and happy greetings to all, wondering where his slippers are and why it is so cold in the castle. Immediately Marguerite moves to tell him what’s wrong and Marie blocks her. It is Queen Marguerite who finally delivers the line: “At the end of the show you are going to die.” The King responds with shock and disbelief and attempts to prove that he still has control over the kingdom, while the doctor and Queen Marguerite try to convince him of the truth. You have an hour and a half, they tell him, while counting down the seconds aloud. This breaking of the fourth wall at multiple points in the show was a little disconcerting: As an audience member, I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to laugh at this or just accept it and ignore it as if watching a typical play.
King Berenger, over the course of the next hour and a half, slowly deteriorates physically and mentally. He goes from his perch high on his throne to hobbling around with a cane and falling many times, and eventually resigns himself to the wheelchair brought by the dutiful and comical Juliette. The audience learns of the King’s failings in war, his loss of territory and the weird way in which time seems to be working. Babies turn into children who turn in to young people who turn elderly all within about three hours, and the seasons change from the warmth of summer to the chill of fall and early winter in a matter of minutes. King Berenger continually struggles with his loss of control and Queen Marguerite’s new increase in control, but slowly moves through the stages of acceptance with much persuasion and enforcement from the doctor and Marguerite.
Then, stagehands start to appear on stage and carry away the set. The arched doorways, the couches and tables and eventually the throne all disappear. The only piece left onstage is the series of steps that had led to the throne. When the curtains drop suddenly, the backdrop is just a bright white, and the feeling of imminent death and going “into the light” settles in the room. One by one, the characters leave the stage, until it is just Marguerite and a much-reduced King, who wanders around stage dodging invisible objects and people under Marguerite’s calm and disconnected direction. The King’s wandering lasts for a while – maybe a bit too long – and the show ends after Marguerite has left the king, who makes his way to the steps and dies. The room goes dark.
Exit the King, directed by Alex Paseltiner ’16 and assistant-directed by Elizabeth Poulos ’19, was well-cast, and the actors were strong and believable. The set was well-designed by Claire Bergey ’17 and the lighting changes designed by Russell Maclin ’17 helped move the story along. Scott Daniel ’17 and Evi Mahon ’18 were also valuable contributors as sound designer and costume designer, respectively. But the play was a weird one. Rhyming lines were spoken randomly and frequently, there were times when it seemed as if a joke was made but no one watching was quite sure that they should laugh and the actors never came out for a bow at the end. This left me, and others, feeling confused and a little unsettled. The show moved along well and the actors conveyed their parts believably, but it was a strange choice of plays from Cap & Bells.