Gallery Theatre Company

Picture Jerry Lewis as the ruler of the world. Now imagine that he is told he has only one and a half hours to live. He has one last chance to mug, whine, and do pratfalls. Thanks to some unfortunate casting, the Gallery Theatre has turned Ionesco’s absurdist classic into a Nutty Professor extravaganza.

I don’t think this is what Ionesco had in mind. Ionesco wrote: “When man is cut off from his religious or metaphysical roots, he is lost; all his struggles become senseless, futile and oppressive.” Meaninglessness was Ionesco’s absurdity, not a banana peel.

He wrote Exit the King to overcome his own fear of death. It is a ritualistic death ceremony, in which metaphor is reality–a kingdom is a representation of a human mind.

Exit the King takes place in the court of King Berenger I. Upon his coronation, Berenger apparently was told that he could reign as long as he wanted, and he has refused even to age for hundreds and hundreds of years. But now King Berenger, the man who stole fire from the gods, built the first airplane, and designed the Eiffel Tower, is going to die.

Everyone but King Berenger knows it. As the king dies, his kingdom and his people will pass, too, and the process of degeneration is well under way at the play’s opening. Snow is falling on the north pole of the sun, planets have collided, and there are gaping holes in the firmament.

Juliette, the domestic help, and a guard tend to the king’s needs until he becomes so senile he forgets who they are. And then they disappear. The court doctor/executioner/astronomer/etc watches the process with scientific detachment. And although Marie, Berenger’s young, beautiful second wife, wishes to spare the king any knowledge of his fate, the king’s tough-cookie first wife, Marguerite, means to deny him that privilege.

“You’re going to die in an hour and a half,” she snaps upon the king’s entrance. “You’re going to die at the end of the show.”

There is no surprise ending. The point is to examine the psychological changes that a man goes through as he copes with death. Marguerite’s goal, which becomes ours, is that Berenger accept his fate and go to his grave calmly and willingly. As a king should.

The mazelike Prism Gallery is an interesting space to mount a play in, and in many ways Randall Packer has done an interesting job with this one. Before the play starts we spot the actors through doorways. Characters speak directly to us, making us part of the ceremony. But casting is also a director’s job, and in this case Packer goofed.

David Franks as the king is astoundingly wrong. From the moment he comes onstage, his wacky, eye-crossing antics never stop. He does not pass through stages of dying but rather goes from one cartoon face to another, each essentially the same as the last. And worst of all, Franks’s Berenger never does resign himself to death, which makes the play meaningless.

Given this king, it is little wonder that the queen is such a sour pickle. Still, Robin Witt as Berenger’s first wife takes joy in nothing, not even her final control over Berenger, when only she can guide him to an honorable death.

The rest of the cast is fine. Kitty Sturgill has a wide-eyed vulnerability as Juliette, and Greg Allen’s doctor has a quirky dry humor that works well. Joanne Murray is a pretty but weak Marie. There is never any doubt that she will disappear before Queen Marguerite, for there is not much to remember about her. In the small part of the guard, Lenny Grossman is the strongest member of the cast. He has a good sense of Ionesco’s absurdity and commits himself fully to the style.

It’s really too bad about that king, though this production has its fine moments anyway. And perhaps I was wrong about Jerry Lewis. Rodney Dangerfield might be closer to it.