I just finished a run performing Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco. I was The Doctor. The last show was Saturday. I wish I could say it was the best one ever, but no. The play was hard. With most plays you settle in a groove, after a few shows it runs like clockwork. We fought with this one to the end. The words were just hard. We all struggled. Then last night combination of fatigue and stress meant that I flubbed a couple of lines. Annoying and noticeable but it is what it is. I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was a bit off. We all had trouble that night. But that’s the way it is with live theatre.
There were several memorable things about this play. First I was playing a bad guy. A Doctor, Executioner, and all around sadist.
This was a stretch for me, but there was a certain delicious fun in being the doctor. He was nasty, from the implication of being a sadist and killer to his casual reference to where he said
“The only children left in the schools are congenital retards, mongoloids, and hydro-cephalics with goiters”.
He was just a cruel person who never missed a chance to twist the knife. For example when a nearly hysterical Marie is begging Berenger to not die the Doctor quips:
“He will be a page in a book of ten thousand pages, that sits in a library of a million books. A library that is one among a million other libraries”.
A cruel, arrogant, sarcastic, mean bastard. But I have to admit playing him was on some level a lot of fun.
As I mentioned this was a hard play. Theatre of the Absurd is just strange. Apparently Exit the King is one of Ionesco’s more normal plays which makes me wonder at his more absurd works. All of us struggled with the lines. In a normal play the dialogue is based on conversations.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Yes I would, thanks.”
“Yes that would be nice. Did I ever mention my family had a sugar beet farm?”
“Was that in Iowa.”
“No, in Minnesota”
That sort of thing. The conversation flows and even if you stumble, there’s a clear ad lib you can do to get back on track. In Exit the King though, the dialogue is a lot of one character or another pontificating with multi page monologues. If you get stuck, there’s nothing the other actors can do to bail you out. Then what vaguely normal conversation there it is spiced with the occasional statement dropped from orbit that seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the exchange. (The statement above about “he’ll be a book…” for example). It’s hard to learn, hard to remember, and hard to get right. There is very little of what we’d think of as normal conversation. I’m glad I was part of this seldom produced play, but I’m also glad it’s over.
The play is very dark. Death, dealing with death, the inevitability of death, how everyone will react to the Kings death is the focus. Now I’m a dark person. I like dark humour. This play was a comedy, the darkest comedy you can possibly imagine. I like that sort of thing. But, you know, after three months, I’m kinda tired of that. I want some happy, silly, fun in my next play. Maybe a light musical. The Music Man. Arsenic and Old Lace. Noises Off. Same Time Next Year. Something like that.
The play, like all productions had memorable moments. One happened toward the end of the run. Juliette, the maid, was walking across the stage. This night she didn’t step on the centre of the platform under the kings throne. For some reason she stepped on the edge, and the trim snapped off, tripping her. Those of us backstage heard a crash. We looked at each other thinking “That wasn’t normal”. But the actor saved it. She didn’t fall down. Almost, but she stayed on her feet. She even had the presence of mind to take the broken piece of the set off with her. Then there was the night early in the run, I think third or fourth show. There’s a spot where the King and Juliette are wrestling over the King’s sceptre. This night they got a little enthusiastic and it broke in half. We all heard the crack and pressed on with the dialogue. We covered it up, except for where the King ad libbed in a crushed voice “They broke my sceptre”. All of us fought to keep a straight face. For act two we used the sceptre we’d been using in rehearsal. The King then ad libbed “Kings always have a spare sceptre” at the start. Most memorable for me was toward the end of the play Queen Marie is begging the king to not die …If you forget me I can’t exist. I’m nothing…” She was able to summon an amazing degree of emotion into the scene. Her voice, her actions, she even cried. It was amazing. It gave me a great base to be the arrogant, dismissive, uncaring, bastard Doctor.
Then there was the time Queen Marguerite was walking through the Green Room when someone mentioned that something was caught to the train on her dress. She looked and started to giggle. Apparently as she walked through the room it had tripped one of the mouse traps in the corner and it had gotten a grip on her train. Soon we were all in hysterics. Robb, the Director, said that it was the funniest Green Room moment he’d ever seen. The best part though: We don’t know when it happened. She probably picked it up at intermission, but she might have gone through the whole first act with it clinging on. I would like to think one of us would have noticed it, but you never know. Then of course there was the running gag all through the show. You see to symbolize how the kingdom was decaying they had arranged for some of the set to fall down. The Stage Directions even said that walls should collapse. We didn’t go that far, just assorted trim pieces came off and fell to the ground, pipes breaking, and such. The trouble was that we had a chronic problem with one or two not falling when they were supposed to, or falling not when they were supposed to. We never really knew if the theatrical “punctuation mark” was going to work when it was supposed to. It was a wild ride.
My favourite part though, well there were two. First the “Benny Hill Scene”. At one point the King Says “I won’t listen to you. He then runs offstage. Literally out the door with us in hot pursuit. We’re all screaming and yelling as we go. We looped around through backstage trying not to trip or step on each other’s trains in the dark, and through the other door back on stage. Then across, down the stairs, back up on the stage and resume our positions. The Guard then banged his halberd and the lights returned to normal. The king looked at the audience and proclaimed “What the fuck was that?”. It always brought down the house. Interestingly though they played Yakkity Sax during the chase, hence the Benny Hill name, none of us ever heard the music. We were so intent on completing the chase without tripping or otherwise hurting ourselves we just tuned it out. The other spot I loved was when Queen Marguerite accuses the Doctor of being a murderer. He replies
“Execution Majesty, not murder.” Normal
“I was just obeying orders.” Lower and a little darker.
“I was merely an instrument.” Even lower and darker.
“An Executor not an Executioner.” Borderline crazy.
“And everything I did I did Euthenassstically.” Truly psychotic, remembering what I did and enjoying it. Then I chuckled in a low evil laugh.
Looking over I saw the horrified queen, and realize that I had said too much. I pull myself together and finish in a normal voice, patronizing, condescending, trying to cover up.
“An-yway. I regret all that now…sorry.”
It was a blast to do.
And let’s not talk about the weather. Winter on Vancouver Island is rainy and dark. We’re used to that. This year though it was snowy. We almost never get snow, at least snow that sticks around more than a day or two. This year though it started snowing in December and stayed. We missed two of the five rehearsals we’d scheduled. In January it kept snowing on and off. We missed a rehearsal, and several more had one or two actors missing because they simply couldn’t get to the theatre. Even right up to the second to the last performance it snowed, turning the parking lot into a slushy swamp. Oddly enough as soon as the play wrapped up, the snow stopped. I’m not superstitious, but I started wondering about an Ionesco curse. Anyway the weather might have been part of the reason attendance was poor. Many shows had only 20 to 30 in the seats. No shows sold out. The top three were 130, 70 and 60 people in the 170 seat auditorium. Weather may have had something to do with it. However the subject matter may have had a lot to do with it as well. I talked to several people who said they enjoyed the play but if I or someone else they knew hadn’t been in it, they would have passed. The description didn’t entice.
But it’s over. After the show we hung out and got some photographs. Then we got out of our costumes and makeup and partied for a bit. They had put out a nice spread. Then came the Crew Show. I think it’s just an Nanaimo Theatre Group thing. The Assistant Director, Stage Manager, and the people in charge of Costumes, Makeup, Props and more all got together and did a ten minute parody of the show. I was surprised how truly funny it was. We enjoyed it a lot. Then we went back to partying. My favourite part, aside from Queen Marguerite not only wearing a unicorn head, not only drinking a beer through the unicorn head, that she has her own personal unicorn head that she keeps in her purse for this sort of occasion. No, for me the high point of the evening was later. during a discussion of movies. Someone commented
“Mahatma Ghandi. Why aren’t there more films about him. Sure there’s Ghandi, but other than that, nothing. Name one other film about Ghandi.”
To which I replied “Ghandi With the Wind?”
The double entendre’ just slayed everyone.
On the Sunday after the last show we took part in another Nanaimo Theatre Group tradition: Cleanup. They make the cast help with cleaning the dressing room, green room the stage area, theatre seating, booth, and tear down the set. I could really have passed on it though. I understand why they do it. It makes us be a bit more careful, and cleaner, in the dressing rooms. It builds esprit d’ corps. It saves on costs. But I do not like seeing the set come down. You see, it was more than a set. It was a place, a real location where I lived part of a life. Oh sure, there will be other sets, the stage will be used for other things. But it was real to me and it’s kinda sad to see it unceremoniously pulled down and cut up. It was too soon.
Finally when things were all done I was alone in the theatre looking at the empty stage. I started to sing. Quietly to myself, with a tear,
There are places I remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better
Some have gone, and some remain
All these places have their moments
With people and friends, I still can recall
Some are dead and some are living
In my life, I’ve loved you all
Then I put on my coat, went out to the car, and drove home. No longer the sadistic Doctor to the dying Berenger in a nightmare kingdom running out of time. Just me, a guy who lives in Canada, who wanted pizza for lunch. There will be some time for mourning, but I’m already on the lookout for my next gig. The next life I can step into for a while.