Amidst heat advisory warnings, sudden thunderstorms, and swarming bugs, two more shows opened at American Players Theatre this weekend; Ionesco's Exit the King and Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer. Written hundreds of years apart, they both focus on human folly and its consequences.
Exit the King
What’s a King to do when the Milky Way has curdled, the planets have collided, the palace is crumbling and the entire country is falling into an abyss? According to the absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco, the only thing left to do is die. So for the duration of Exit the King, running at American Players Theatre in the Touchstone through September 27, audiences see the King (Jim Ridge) receive the news of his impending end and live his final two hours. As his practical first wife (Tracy Michelle Arnold) Queen Marguerite continuously reminds him, “you will die at the end of the play.” And with that statement enunciated clearly at the performance’s start, the only thing for the audience to do is follow the frustrating, confusing, absolutely absurd voyage from life to death.
In contrast to the morbid subject matter, much of the production feels like a journey through a carnival fun house. There are lots of laughs and pratfalls. Lights flash and the King goes to outlandish lengths to outrun, outsmart, and generally refuse his death sentence. There is also a Brechtian self consciousness to the piece, from actors chatting with audience members as they arrange set pieces and check light cues before the show begins, to handing costume pieces to patrons in the front row, to allowing a trunk of props to be seen clearly stage right. Directed by Tim Ocel, the show is a ridiculous ride through the classic stages of death and dying — denial, anger, bargaining, blame, and finally acceptance. A quack doctor (John Pribyl), a sensuous young wife (Cassia Thompson), and a soldier who cannot stop following orders (a very funny Casey Hoekstra) swirl around the King making his passing harder and more fraught, even while they are trying to ease his way.
As the everyman who fights, rages, claws, hides, and eventually succumbs to death, Jim Ridge is us. Frantically looking for a way out for the first half of the play, he grows steadily weaker and acquiesces one tiny piece at a time for the second half. The salt-of-the-earth maid and nurse (a hollow-cheeked Sarah Day) remarks several times in wonder that kings die just as common people do, and indeed, it’s hard not to think of hospital visits for friends and relatives at every distinct stage of Ridge’s decline. One minute sulking like a spoiled child, the next searching for solace in sex, accomplishments, medicine, science, and the idea of leaving a legacy, Ridge marches through it all. His silent soliloquy in the play’s final minutes is heartbreaking, as Arnold gently leads him toward the end, her voice steady as if reciting a meditation. And as the lights go down in a painfully slow fade (gorgeous design by Jesse Klug), Ridge’s facial features are obscured so that he is, in fact, any of us. And all of us.
The Recruiting Officer
Restoration playwright George Farquhar was employed filling England’s army with young men before writing this play, which is a comical indictment of the lying, cheating, scheming, and general skullduggery used by military recruiting officers; they stoop as low as necessary to make their quotas of new enlistments and while also fulfilling their basest desires. Like street hustlers, the charming and disarming Captain Plume (Nate Burger) and the an unabashedly devious Sergeant Kite (Jefferson A. Russell) roam from town to town in 18th century England duping the lower classes into signing up to be cannon fodder, and bedding as many women as possible — marrying often, in order to take care of the fatherless children they leave in their wake. In the hands of these royal officers, the poor, backwards folk of Shrewsbury don’t stand a chance.
Russell dons an elaborate disguise as a charlatan fortune teller to further manipulate the bumpkins into enlisting, and convinces the beautiful Melinda (Andrea San Miguel) to stop toying with Mr. Worthy’s affections (Juan Rivera Lebron) and give herself to him at last. While this section of the play is entertaining, it goes on far too long.
Meanwhile the spunky Silvia (Kelsey Brennan) decides to don her brother’s suit to pursue her love — taking the matter into her own hands instead of being ruled by her father or dependent on her fickle Captain Plume to make the next move. But as much fun as it is to see a bold woman in breeches get what she wants, Plume doesn’t seem worth having, even though Burger infuses the cad with a heart of gold.
Marcus Truschinski’s self-aggrandizing Captain Brazen is an undeniable highlight of the production, onstage at APT in The Hill Theatre, through September 29. With excessive bravado, clever swordplay, and plenty of eccentric flourishes, he is hilarious but harmless, ironically making him one of the most noble characters in the play.
As the eager farmer’s daughter Rose, Christina Panfilio is another bright spot — charming, if painfully gullible. Another one of Plume’s conquests, she cheerfully trades sexual favors and the promise of more recruits for the captain’s empty promises of money and respectability. Conditioned to be abused, she then accuses Brennan’s Silvia of foul play when the woman in disguise doesn’t seduce her.
Modern sensibilities already undercut the humor of The Recruiting Officer. It’s no fun seeing powerful men with education and money take advantage of everyone around them, with no consequences. But director Bill Brown’s decision to put a few of the villagers in modern clothing—suggesting that this kind of exploitation continues in the present—boils away any laughs that would have remained in the final scene. So although there are some delightful moments, they don’t add up to a satisfying whole. Compounded with some opening night sloppiness—lights malfunctioning, props and lines being dropped—the play doesn’t really gel.