It seemed absurd a few months ago to read the obituaries of Eugene Ionesco. Hadn't he been dead for years? Was this a variation on the old joke about Franco? Overshadowed by the genius of Samuel Beckett, Ionesco's plays have seemed like literary footnotes from the past, ranking with those of the Dadaists as dramatic curiosities. With wry self-deprecation, Ionesco wrote of himself, "It's not worth rereading his words: nothing new." A French-Rumanian born in 1912, Ionesco is best known for the one-acts that are staples of academia: The Bald Soprano, The Lesson and The Chairs. His fame is as father of the "Theatre of the Absurd" movement, which looked at human existence through a kaleidoscope of fractured images intended to sharpen our perceptions by ridiculing the absurdities we accept as the commonplace. Although Ionesco wrote his last play in 1970, his work ceased being shown in New York more than 30 years ago with the 1961 Broadway production of Rhinoceros starring the late Zero Mostel.
Entombed alive in the mausoleum of public neglect, Ionesco sometimes has seemed more important as an influence (notably on contemporary writers like Edward Albee) than as a dramatic force in his own right. We therefore should be grateful to the enterprising new professional production entity In Mixed Company for mounting an electrifying production of the playwright's 1963 masterpiece Exit the King. It thunders with resonance. Exit the King is a scathing tragicomedy that examines the process of dying. This somber subject is held under the scrutiny of unblinking honesty, and the poetry that emerges is as inevitable as a final breath. Director David Barker and his team of designers have created a universe that is a circus of the senses, plunked down in the middle of the audience, where we witness the high-wire act of extinction only a heartbeat away from our own experience.
Tempe Performing Arts Center is arranged so the audience is stretched out along a runway that is at once a playground and an obstacle course. At one end of a huge ramp, a guard wails like a siren through a gigantic megaphone, announcing the characters of the play who emerge from the black void at the opposite end of the theatre. These are two queens, one dour and threatening with the face of a lemon, the other beautiful and giddy like a voluptuous passion fruit; a doctor/astrologer/minister, with his telescope and his watch; a simple servant with a broom; and, finally, in a red robe like the Little King from the comic strip, flaunting long Louis XIV curls, the king himself.
A huge swing serves as the throne for the playful king. A pool of balloons invites the characters to dive at various times when they are submerged by an inability to act--like one of those nightmares in which, frozen in fear, your legs seem glued to the floor and you can't run. High above a cardboard floor, ominous loops of rope hang like a hemp jungle gym, threatening to trap the characters in a web of nooses. It is eerie. The audience looks nervously from side to side, unable to guess what might be in store next, a laugh or a cry of anguish. The king peers at the front row: "I don't know this audience--and I don't want to!"
The king, we are told, is going to die. In fact, he has exactly one hour and 45 minutes to live. At first, the incredulous king receives the news with panache. He has the certain conviction of immortality so familiar in the young. "You're going to die," he is told. He snaps back: "I know that. We all know that. You must remind me when the time comes." But as the play proceeds, the king begins to discover the truth of the prediction. He loses his robes, he loses his luxurious wig. Pale and vulnerable, his will is no longer absolute: nature disobeys his every wish. "Sun: Hold back the night!" pleads the king. "Turn back time. Let it be last week." The forces of change insinuate themselves inexorably into the action.
It is very hard to let go. "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?" cries the king. "I never had time to get to know life." The remaining minutes are ticked off for us by the somber Queen Marguerite with her black fingernails, while the soulful Queen Marie is helpless to intervene. Love cannot postpone the ultimate ending. Desperately, the king recalls all the books he meant to read. "So many worlds will die in me." Fearful of his compulsory doom, he begs, "Let me go on living, century after century, even with a raging toothache! I don't want to be embalmed, buried, burned." The king reminisces about the nature of the life he will be leaving: "A trip to the market, the wonder of the ordinary."
In a sequence in which he recalls his fondness for a little ginger cat, the drama touches a moment of specific contact between the searching soul of an individual with the external reality of the existential "other." His memory of the creature's adoration, mirroring, perhaps, his own narcissism, is humanly touching, an image beyond intellect that purrs with vibrant resonance. "Teach me resignation, teach me serenity, teach me indifference."
Director Barker has assembled a perfect cast, finely attuned to the playful terror that divides each moment. Barbara McGrath is especially chilling as the ominous Queen Marguerite. Russ Wendt as the Doctor is tall and still, enigmatic behind his sunglasses. Allen Lea and Cindy Wynn find quirky moves and vocal patterns that amuse even as they abstract in the roles of the Guard and the servant Juliette. Joy Lynn Pak is a warm and sensual Queen Marie. Best of all is Steven Mastroieni as the King. His performance focuses on the journey from arrogance to acceptance with a keen economy. Most impressive is the ensemble nature of the work. True ensemble playing is a rarity, in which all of the participants inhabit the same world, the world of the play. Barker has his cast intoning lines at odd moments and moving abstractly, but always creating the absurd universe that is Ionesco's.
As a disclaimer, it should be acknowledged that the director, David Barker, is a colleague of mine on the faculty at ASU. I am delighted to discover the excellence he displays here, which sets a high standard of accomplishment for professional theatre in the Valley.