Just as the rich and famous have to put on their pants one leg at a time, just like the rest of us, even kings have to face mortality, just as we all do.
So it goes for King Berenger I, the title character of Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist tragicomedy, Exit the King, on view currently at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Berenger, a character who also shows up in Rhinoceros, is the alter ego of Ionesco, who was himself preoccupied with this own death. So the front-loads his play with comedy ― which has been redoubled by Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield in their new adaptation, but still there is no escape when Berenger learns at the top of the play that 90 minutes later he will meet his demise.
Berenger is child-like, although more than 400 years old. We are told that during his reign he wrote The Iliad and those plays usually attributed to a guy named Shakespeare. What’s more, he invented farm equipment and the smartphone. But he also has run his kingdom into the ground, as seen by the ever-widening cracks in the palace walls. Still, Berenger’s relative accomplishments matter little when death stares him down.
Rush played Berenger in his home country of Australia and then on Broadway in 2009. From accounts of that production, he was wildly comic before lowering the boom, dramatically speaking. At Dramaworks, the versatile and naturally funny Colin McPhillamy seems headed in the same risible direction, judging from the way he works the crowd in a pre-show barrage of wince-worthy jokes.
Early on, though, as he shows us the little king for the bumbling Everyman he is, McPhillamy is only moderately amusing. It is when his curly carrot top turns white with age and fright that the actor comes into his own, with a towering performance that is profoundly touching. Whether or not director William Hayes consciously pulled back on the comedy in favor of the pathos, that is the result, and it is extremely effective.
Phillamy is the center of attention and he holds it throughout the evening. Still, this is no one-man show. Angie Radosh is both regal and level-headed as Queen Marguerite, his first wife, who guides him expertly towards what lies beyond ― perhaps nothing. With eyes red from crying, his newer trophy wife Queen Marie (Claire Brownell) seems to be the only one who really cares for the old coot.
Supporting players Elizabeth Dimon, as Berenger’s nurse, and Rob Donohoe as his doctor, scurry about, adding choice bits of comic business. So does Jim Ballard as the palace guard, though his armor cuts down on the scurrying.
Scenic designer Michael Amico ― a recent Carbonell winner ― does wonders conjuring up Berenger’s decrepit palace, complete with animated herald trumpets, and Leslye Menshouse amuses with her costumes, ranging from Berenger’s pajamas to his wives’ regal trains, handy for flourishing about.
There surely have been funnier productions of Exit the King, but rather than have us die laughing, Dramaworks prefers we think about the existential journey of the ultimate nothingness of death.
EXIT THE KING, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, April 28. Tickets: $55. Call: (561) 514-4042.