After a serious illness, playwright Eugene Ionesco was tormented and very scared.
Feeling compelled to face his mortality, he immediately started work on a play, "Exit the King." He called the explosive 1962 tragicomedy "an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying."
Prospect Theater Project's powerful staging is the best work the company has produced in many months. A no-holds-barred exploration of what we all must face one day, the absurdist classic is bleak and grim, yet also cathartic.
Jack Souza, Prospect's founding artistic director, delivers a tour-de-force performance in the title role, skillfully employing everything he has in his actor's tool bag. According to the program, this is his last Modesto performance before he moves to New York City.
The show begins with a kingdom in crisis. The land has been shaken by earthquakes, towns are abandoned, soldiers have deserted and the birth rate is zero.
Within the first few minutes, King Berenger (Souza) is told that he will die by the end of the play. He is a highly accomplished monarch who has reigned for centuries, written all of Shakespeare's tragedies, invented the airplane, and founded Paris, Rome and Moscow. He has always done exactly what he wanted to do and can't believe that it is all coming to an end.
Following the five familiar stages of grief, he moves from denial to anger, bargaining and depression. "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?" he rails. Finally, he reaches acceptance and lets go of everything he holds dear.
Wearing bright-red long underwear under his royal robe, Souza begins the show as a clownish figure who is anxious and delusional. Not willing to accept that his body is falling apart, he pushes it further than it can go and ends up making pratfalls. He becomes more serious and more inwardly focused, finally coming to a genuine understanding about what is and is not important about life.
Offering an equally compelling performance is Mary Pieczarka as his worldly first wife, Queen Marguerite. She transforms from the king's biggest enemy to his most helpful friend, moving from bitter cynicism to selfless compassion. Her final scene with Souza is gripping because of her intense presence.
Others alternately helping and hindering the king in his dying process are his overly emotional second wife (Michelle Raust), a somewhat sinister doctor (David Narbona), a feisty maid (Liz Tachella-Bowman) and a dimwitted guard (Joel Virgen).
This is an extremely demanding show that in less skilled hands easily could turn into a dry recitation of speeches. Director Ron Lane, working in collaboration with lighting designer Souza, makes sure that doesn't happen by incorporating dramatic theatrical effects. As one example, when the king is disoriented, we hear loud recorded sounds of his erratically beating heart and see flashes of colored lights all over the theater.
Underscoring the timeless nature of the subject, costume designer Christie Mayfield outfits the cast in styles crossing time periods, including modern and Renaissance. Brian Swander's set is a Spartan affair with a throne, a couple of chairs and a cracked floor.
Ionesco, who died in 1994, once said he didn't think writing "Exit the King" had helped him come to the grips with the dying process after all, but he did think the play helped others. No matter what the result, it certainly has and will continue to spark intense discussions.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan can be reached at 578-2313 or email@example.com.
'Exit the King'
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and Thursday, Feb. 28, and 2 p.m. Sundays; through March 2