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Exit the King is a hilarious parable, transported to the other worldly by marvelous music, dazzlingly written, with profundity hidden behind the comic mask.  It’s everything theater should be — including outstanding performers and a brilliantly intelligent production.  You could not have a better time than at Exit the King.

Aristophanes lives on in Ionesco’s wild tale where anything can and does happen because that’s how life is.

The set is dominated by vast, “kingly” but drooping drapery — with Goyaesque drawings, like a Metropolitan Opera set making way for a new production.  Everything about this play is about endings.  King Berenger, played by Geoffrey Rush in one of the greatest performances I’ve seen, is dying.  (Rush is so good you just don’t want it to ever end.)  We’re told that the King will be dead by the end of the performance — the characters check their watches now and again to see how much time he has left.

Queen Marguerite seems wryly, even coldly, willing to let things take their course — she’s a puzzle we don’t understand fully until the end — in contrast to Queen Marie, his second and younger wife, a frail vessel of those pesky human emotions of love, grief, and resistance to the inevitable.  The King, a classic clown with German Expressionist smears of face paint, does not want to die, and his rationales, explanations and feints are those we all share — talk about “universal.”  Only he’s so funny.

From the start we know it’s not only the King who’s dying.  The clock’s ticking also on his once enormous kingdom, greatly reduced in size and power because of his neglect, to the point where now the pond is lapping at the fence posts.  One thinks of polar bears puzzling it out on a melting block of ice.  The play is prescient, written in 1962.

An individual dies and an entire world vanishes — we often think that narcissistic union (or confusion) of microcosm and macrocosm is peculiar to humans and for much of the play that seems to be the topic.  But toward the end meanings crescendo and masks fall away.  Susan Sarandon — regally — removes her Queen’s cloak to reveal fully her vibrant green gown.  Nature herself, there she is!  The inevitable, the truth!  Muse-like — there’s so much that’s Classical about this zany, “absurdist” play — she leads the King to where he must go.  Her role swells and the shrinking Kingdom shows its true face.  It’s not only Berenger’s:  it’s the human kingdom, our world — the big one — that we’ve neglected, muddied, handed over to entropy without a fight … and now beyond recall.

Early on, railing frantically against inevitability, the King comes up with an argument from nature:  “Death’s not natural.  That’s why nobody wants to do it.”  Only death, it turns out, is natural.  If we’ve had any doubts, by the end we’ve heard it from Nature herself.

Exit the King plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Broadway, NYC, through June 30th