Friday, June 05, 2009

All Hail - Exit the King - Play Review

Exit the King - Barrymore Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5)
Written by Eugene Ionesco, New Translation by Neil Armfield and Geoffrey Rush, Directed by Neil Armfield
Runs until June 14th 2009

Okay, I have no idea who Ionesco is, but apparently he's a great intellectual playwright whose stuff would typically not be produced on Broadway. And my (Toronto) actor friends were all excited that it was actually going to be on Broadway, so I figured I'd take up the chance to see it and rub it in their faces.

Plus, with a starry cast including Geoffrey Rush (reprising his role from Sydney and Melbourne and a production he co-shepherded), Susan Sarandon, Lauren Ambrose (Six Feet Under), William Sadler (The Bourne Conspiracy) and Andrea Martin (Young Frankenstein, On The Town).

So at least it would be all sparkly.

Luckily I read enough about the play that I went in knowing it was an absurdist dark comedy and that Rush and Armfield's new translation makes parallels to the leaders in power that lead the country blindly into the latest war. So the play about a dying king, unwilling to accept his fate as he lives in his own delusional final days while trying to keep a stronghold of his powers, seemed deeply relevant and moving.

Some of the speeches were still far too long and the second act dragged a bit since we're basically awaiting the king's downfall and death (since it IS announced right at the beginning of the play), but it's all worth it for the final moments when Susan Sarandon (as one of the two Queens) soothingly talks the King into death in a powerfully simplistic and bare staging.

But what's GREAT about the play is watching the cast in a totally absurd play, and totally hamming it up in delirious fashion. With smeared makeup and boldly exaggerated costumes with acting styles to match, the cast, led by the brilliant Geoffrey Rush, takes on the dark and layered script with black humour and gusto.

Geoffrey Rush is really as brilliant in the role as you may have read everywhere and deserves the showering of awards he's getting (including the Best Actor Tony that he's guaranteed to win this Sunday). He's not just acting the role, he becomes the role, in both speech and with his gumby-like body that twists and maneuvers across the whole stage, rolling and tumbling along as his demise as the king continues through his own denial.

Lauren Ambrose and Susan Sarandon play his two Queens. Ambrose as the younger naive queen who continues to push the king farther away from the truth, while Sarandon's Queen is the more knowing, cynical elder Queen. Sarandon hasn't been on the stage in a while, and it's not the greatest performance, but her natural commanding presence and voice sets the tone well enough to make her performance a delight to watch. She's mesmerizing despite some stage trepidation.

Lauren Ambrose goes all out with her performance and it's eye popping and transfixing. Her silly girl queen is hilarious and she matches step for step with Rush's energy and dizziness.

Rounding out the ensemble are three character actor all who take their smaller roles and inject it full of zing. Andrea Martin, as always, takes her character as the lowly servant and turns in a gem of a performance. The always underrated Sadler, usually all serious, is here in clown make up, which has a nice juxtaposition and makes it all the more fun to watch.

Brian Hutchison as the guard has only a few choice droll lines which he wrings for maximum effect.

From the kooky intro all the way to the haunting ending, the cast leads us down a deliriously dark path that works as both a discussion on death, and that also works as a metaphor for the recent political shenanigans conducted by some fallen leaders.

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