City Garage’s effective revival of Eugene Ionesco’s “Exit the King,” newly translated by director Frederique Michel and production designer Charles Duncombe, isn’t light summer entertainment, the fun in the sun usually associated with Santa Monica.
Ionesco described his 1962 play as “an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying.” Learning to die, he explained, “seems to me the most important thing we can do, since we’re all of us dying men who refuse to die.”
Some of us may not have as much choice in the matter as Ionesco supposed. But King Berenger (Troy Dunn), all-powerful monarch of a nameless realm, has lived for hundreds of years through sheer force of will and is not about to go gentle into that good night. Even though the sun no longer shines at his command, he has nobody left to rule, and parts of the kingdom keep falling into an abyss. He’s such a bad student of dying that he needs a remedial crash course.
That’s what “Exit the King” essentially is: a 90-minute argument for just giving up, already. There’s no suspense, no third-act rescue, no twist. “You’re going to die at the end of the show,” Queen Marguerite (Natasha St. Clair-Johnson) informs Berenger early on, and it’s not a suggestion. The royal Doctor (Anthony M. Sannazzaro) is fully on board. Queen Marie (Lindsay Plake), Berenger’s second, younger wife, joins him in denial at first, but she eventually is persuaded. Even the remaining two servants, the Guard (David E. Frank) and the Maid, Juliette (Kat Johnston), grudgingly accept the inevitable. The only one who won’t get with the program is — you guessed it — King Berenger.
The characters are allegorical rather than realistic, and as such, fairly stagnant. Michel doesn’t entirely avoid the risk of monotony in the performances. The malice with which Queen Marguerite spits out her lines, the throb of anguish in Queen Marie’s voice and the Doctor’s affected sneer all start to feel stale after a while.
But the Guard’s puzzled melancholy and Juliette’s tart bluntness — perhaps because they are deployed less frequently — remain amusing. And Dunn is not only beautifully cast, with his aristocratic bearing and a gleam of madness in his eyes, but he displays an impressive emotional range. A remarkably natural performer, he really takes a journey here. The image of his horrified face, spotlighted by Duncombe in the phantasmagoric final tableau, kept my soul chilled all the way to the beach.
‘Exit the King’
Where: City Garage at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through July 14
Info: (310) 453-9939 or citygarage.org
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