Shakespeare Theatre/NJ offers superb, absurd ‘Exit the King’ in August

If you want real-life Theater of the Absurd this summer season, keep following the American Presidential race. If you want to experience  some on a  smaller stage, a play penned by one of the masters of the art of zany, delusional characters in hopeless situations they refuse to accept, check out “Exit the King” by Eugene Ionesco at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey through August 28.

Under the superb direction of the theater’s Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte with a stellar six-character cast, this accessible Ionesco masterpiece focuses on the inevitable death of a clueless king who has ruled for hundreds of years but whose kingdom now is literally falling apart — holes everywhere like a piece of Swiss cheese — following many years of war and continued neglect.

We hear frequent earthquake rumblings,  walls slowly cracking apart, and characters fading away one by one until ultimately — poof — all is darkness.

Sound depressing? Not necessarily. There are plenty of laughs.

But the king is dying, his power is gone, and he is even losing control over his body. The play makes you think about death and, depending on your age, the quality of the life you have led.  Patrons will leave the theater with different thoughts and ideas. And isn’t that the best kind of theater? The kind that you talk about post-curtain rather than go for a drink and talk nonsense.

Whoops. Did I say nonsense? There is a lot of that from  King Berenger the First (Brent Harris) who isn’t going quietly to his grave. His first wife Queen Marguerite (Marion Adler) sees and accepts the inevitable but is frustrated to no end by the lack of concern shown by the others, especially the much younger second wife Queen Marie (Jesmille Darbouze). She tells the King what he wants to hear.

Attempting to keep the kingdom neat and tidy is Juliette (Kristie Dale Sanders) and helping it to run smoothly is the Guard (Jon Barker). Greg Watanabe is the Doctor, whose duties also include acting as the kingdom’s executioner.

Costumes by Hugh Hanson and the set by Brittany Vasta place us in the 16th century and includes the Guard wearing armor. Tony Galaska’s lighting and sound design by Karin Graybash complete the highly theatrical experience.

When the show opens, the Guard is banging on a radiator to encourage the heat to turn on and plays royal entrance music on a boom box. Juliette uses a vacuum cleaner on the castle’s floors and a lint roller on the King’s floor length robes. And she nearly steals every scene she is in. Surly and practical, Juliette sees what’s happening and handles like any servant would — she cops an attitude and gets on with her many jobs.

As the Guard, Barker has a wonderful moment when he passionately extols all of the King’s past deeds and triumphs that serves as a sort of epitaph. The weak King we see now is not the one we should remember.  Darbouze, unfortunately, has the least developed character and spends much time soothing and petting her husband.

The climax of this 90-minute production — Monte smartly cut half the script — is calm, sensitive and lovingly staged. Queen Marguerite, who has spent nearly 400 years with the King, calms him down, restores his confidence, and eases him toward acceptance of death before she, too, disappears and all is darkness. At the performance I was at, it took the audience several seconds to recover before the applause began.

Most performances are immediately followed by a talk-back session with the director and cast.

WHERE: Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, 36 Madison Ave, Madison, NJ 07940

CALL: (973) 408-5600