Exit the King
Duke University Department of Theater Studies @ Sheafer Theater, Duke Campus
Through April 11

The Duke University Department of Theater Studies’ production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King has the unusual timing of being produced simultaneously with an all-star version featuring Geoffrey Rush and Susan Sarandon on Broadway. According to reviews, the New York version, like the Duke version, makes a point of comparing the titular king to a certain recent president of the United States. However, Duke’s surreal, puppet-festooned version works better as an absurdist take on the nature of life itself, rather than a trenchant political satire.

Not that there aren’t eerie parallels between Ionesco’s king Berenger (Dan Lerman) and the real world, as in the line “The sea has broken the dikes and flooded the country.” But the production is at its best when it focuses on the twilight of Berenger, who has apparently been alive for more than 400 years, dictated the patterns of the weather, and now sits in a desolate throne room with autumn leaves drifting in from above and frogs crawling the walls.

It’s announced early on that he must die before the show is over, and with his first and second wives (Itohan Aghayere and Christie McDonald) pulling him in different directions, Berenger must learn to cast off his remaining delusions and accept that his time is up.

Director Ellen Hemphill frames the action with a combination of rear projection and gloriously creepy puppets by Basil Twist that emphasize the elements of magical realism (the ragged, colorful costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts are also terrific). This is the sort of play where a giant pendulum swings ominously around the actors, and characters disappear as they’re pulled offstage by unknown forces.

The production runs an hour and a half with no intermission, which makes for occasional lags, but the combination of absurd elements with realistic emotions pays off spectacularly at the end, where a long monologue is combined with one of Twist’s most elaborate and effective puppets. We have no idea if the Broadway version is worth the trip, but Duke’s take on Exit the King ranks as an inventive and imaginative look at the dying of the light, and what happens when there’s nothing left to rage against.