Is it possible for a show to be extremely well done and yet still not entirely connect?
Oh, my, yes.
Palm Beach Dramaworks does exactly that - and does it very well - with Eugene Ionesco's absurdist classic "Exit the King."
First, a little context: The play premiered 51 years ago in 1962 and was translated by Geoffrey Rush in 2007 and staged on Broadway in 2009 (Rush won a Tony for his performance). The production is part of the playwright's Berenger Cycle, which includes 1958’s "The Killer," 1959's "Rhinoceros" and 1963's "A Stroll in the Air."
The staging here - directed with cartoonish flair by William Hayes - is flawless. The cast jumps onboard the irrational ride, grabbing on tightly until the last stop, 90 minutes later with no intermission.
But there's a reason this show isn't mounted much: Many people just don’t "get" Theatre of the Absurd. Besides, "Exit the King" is about death, not a biggie for American audiences. In the ultimate spoiler alert, we are told at the opening that the central character, King Berenger the First (Colin McPhillamy), is going to die by the end of the performance.
Even before that, Berenger yucks it up with the audience, vaudeville style. He's desperate for attention like a needy child, even though he has lived for 400 years. Eventually, he wanders onstage, and we learn that his kingdom used to have a population of "9,000 million." But now, it's less than a 1,000 old people "who know the party is over, but pretend they don't," observes Queen Marguerite (Angie Radosh).
His ramshackle castle - because he was a terrible king - is shared by his second wife, Queen Marie (Claire Brownell), his doctor (Rob Donohoe) and what's left of his staff: one guard (Jim Ballard) and one domestic (Elizabeth Dimon).
Noblesse oblige be damned, Berenger is not going gently into that good night. He flaps and flies around the stage until finally, in the last truly poetic passage, Queen Marguerite eases him into the inevitable.
Absurdists use humor not to make you laugh as much as to show their reaction to life's capriciousness, randomness and fathomlessness. It is all about alienation and miscommunication. So unless you're really, really into gallows humor, this might not be your thing. It's not so much a "comic romp" (as billed by the company) as it is a drama with desperate, nonsensical humor. And it's all sooooo academic in a way.
That's a tough sell. But if any theater company can pull it off, it’s Palm Beach Dramaworks and it's with this cast.
"Exit the King" runs through April 28 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., in West Palm Beach. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; and 2 p.m. matinees Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets cost $55 ($10 for students). Call 561-514-4042 or go to PalmBeachDramaworks.org