The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey did Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco honors staging his 1962 rare gem, Exit the King, which has appeared just twice on Broadway in very brief runs. Fully inhabiting the leads in Madison were Brent Harris, as “Berenger the First, The King,” and the inimitable Marion Adler, as his first wife, Queen Marguerite. Both stars glittered resplendently, bringing luster to this neglected work. 

A little fun with silly old dying

Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte helmed actors and production artists with her characteristic playfulness and respect for her authors, producing a play that is as fascinating as it is baffling, at once moving as well as disturbing.

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For the 90-minute duration of the sole act, characters bickered and expounded on King Berenger’s impending exit, meaning “Adios, World.” Such sustained speeches and ruminations on death and dying can get you thinking in ways most of us like to avoid. Somehow, though, the savvy director kept things from becoming all dim and grim, allowing Ionesco’s incredible wit and humor to shine in this dark #Comedy.

‘I’m ready for my close-up’

As Queen Marguerite, Marion Adler was all commanding regality and sensitive vulnerability, rolled into one. Her grand gestures look natural, unexaggerated, making one think she surely lives offstage in that mode and is merely being herself onstage. She upstages no one, at times standing perfectly still, eyes caringly riveted on the king or whoever else holds the stage at the moment.

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Even then, there was no question who’s running things in the Berenger home.

Enter the king

Brent Harris played Berenger as a silly lunatic, who put the “m” in “mercurial” and “maniacal.” Kudos to Costume Designer Hugh Hansen, who dressed him in olive velour pajamas, a huge flowing purple velvet robe and an atrocious wig that unnoticeably changed instantaneously from a repugnant russet to white, giving the actor an uncanny resemblance to 19th-century composer Franz Liszt.

True ensemble spirit

Both Marion Adler and Brent Harris, as queen and king, carried the lion’s share of monologues and dialogues. Still it would be unfair to say the other four cast members played minor or even secondary roles, each so vital to Ionesco’s plot. Throughout the whole play all six were mostly ever-present onstage, often acting as one, in true ensemble spirit.

The second wife

Jesmille Darbouze was Queen Marie, wife number two, decked out in a gorgeous avocado muslin gown delicately trimmed in rhinestones, all aglitter with tiara and a gaudy necklace, which Marie apparently wore all day.

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She gushed believably as the adoring wife who doesn’t want to let her monarch go. Declaiming the most existentialist speeches (‘You exist because you are, yet maybe you’ve never really been here’), coming from her persuasive lips she almost made one a believer.

Caught off guard

Jon Barker embodied the faithful former freedom fighter, now clueless multitasking herald and security, referred to merely as “Guard.” Other characters often curtailed his official court pronouncements (“Long live the king!” and “The sun is no longer obedient to the king!” among them). He delightfully exploited these opportunities to portray his bewilderment, his face subtly fighting itself to fulfill his job description, which includes keeping a straight face, showing no feeling.

Playing doctor and nurse

“The Doctor”—forced to serve also as court astronomer and, ironically, executioner—was Greg Watanabe in his impressive debut with the Company. Kristie Dale Sanders, hilarious for all her understated dryness, was nurse/beleaguered housekeeper Juliette, the voice of sensible reality.

Sight for the eyes

Scenic Designer Brittany Vasta created a credible world for these eccentric characters—the throne room a massive gothic structure with vaulted ceilings and archways, giving a sense of vastness.

Exit the King, by Eugène Ionesco, closed at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, August 29, at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, in Madison. #Shakespeare #Everything Music and Theatre