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Countdown to Oblivion

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EXIT THE KING

Eclipse Theatre Company

Thirty-two years before he died, Eugene Ionesco magnificently confronted his mortality and ours in Exit the King. In fact he may well have recalled the play before his own death earlier this year, so unflinching is its depiction of letting go and so beautiful its lesson that the gift of life is a loan we repay to those who follow. In this work the absurdist playwright poses the bitter question, "Why was I born if it wasn't forever?" Facing that inequity is Berenger I, a 277-year-old king and famous inventor whose solipsistic fantasy is that his life sustains the universe; with so much at stake, how could nature let him perish?

Wise and warm, Eclipse Theatre Company's revival, planned before the playwright's death, is at the least topical. But when is death not? Set in Berenger's crumbling throne room, Exit the King depicts his last day. Spoofing the catastrophes that dog the deaths of kings in Shakespeare, Ionesco surrounds Berenger's demise with earthquakes, a decaying sun, colliding planets, sinking mountains, shrinking borders, defeated armies, rapidly changing seasons, and a population that has dwindled from "9,000 million" to 45 young people who may age overnight.

Berenger has so mismanaged his kingdom that it might not survive him. But then he almost craves such chaos--he'd take the kingdom with him if he could. Helping him to accept the end are his doctor and his first wife, Queen Marguerite, a woman of no illusions. Though their countdown to his death seems coldly efficient ("You will die at the end of the play"), it's also practical and oddly comforting. By contrast the cloying devotion of Berenger's second wife, Queen Marie, seems selfish and sentimental: she's afraid to lose him because she'll lose herself.

Ionesco depicts the royal extinction as no nobler than any other--as always, death is inconvenient and premature. Seething with self-pity and self-doubt, Berenger rages, denies, and bargains, wavering between wanting the world destroyed and wanting it preserved so that it can remember him. Above all he clings frantically to the life around him: in a lovely scene, Berenger listens as his servant recites her endless drudgery--but the king, on the threshold of death, sees what she cannot, the everyday miracles we take for granted.

The playwright pits Berenger's desperation against the absoluteness of his fate: for 100 minutes we wait for Berenger to die. But Ionesco fills these minutes with delicious humor, both verbal (a stentorian guard pompously announces the king's diminishing capacities) and physical (Berenger's rickety "throne" is really a huge high chair, from which he tumbles in elaborate pratfalls).

After the triumph of her production of Born Guilty at Red Orchid, Shira Piven strikes gold again with a concentrated staging that delivers the playwright's goods intact. (She also composed the rich score.) Performing on a sand-strewn set (the sands of time?), her young cast may not yet taste their mortality but they certainly suggest it. Wearing a bowler hat for a crown and natty red tie and socks, Christopher Holloway as the king is half graceful vaudeville clown, half existential tragedian, and altogether convincing. Finally discarding all his earthly dross but the comical crown, Berenger achieves a kind of apotheosis as, mounting his throne to face oblivion, he finds a death with dignity.

Darren Bochat as the doctor and Erica Weiss as the second wife offer touching depictions of qualified devotion. But it's Deirdre Waters's electric portrayal of Queen Marguerite, the helpmate who sees Berenger off to eternity, that most moves. Waters proves the perfect tour guide for the hereafter; a kind of absurdist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, she magisterially conducts Berenger through all the stages of dying to a calm and enviable passing.

FRIDA: THE LAST PORTRAIT

Court Theatre

If death haunts Berenger, it plagued artist Frida Kahlo. Court Theatre's production of Frida: The Last Portrait, written and first performed by Donna Blue Lachman at Blue Rider Theater in 1987, offers a pictorial 75-minute sketch of the Mexican portraitist, who died in 1954 at only 47. Tormented invalid, socialist sympathizer, famed hostess, and anguished wife of muralist Diego Rivera, Kahlo was as colorful as her 200 vibrant canvases, most of them self-portraits also featuring her pet monkeys.

Clad in a cobalt shawl and Tehuana folk dress, Lachman's Frida converses with the audience--her "houseguests"--delivering earthy confessions as she coquettishly offers a glass of wine, a cigarette, or an obscenely shaped cookie or coyly displays her false leg from beneath the bedclothes. She also reviews a life whose pain and art were inextricable. Injuries from a bus accident when she was 18 doomed Kahlo to 30 operations, innumerable plaster body casts (which she painted), and finally an artificial leg. Her injuries also bequeathed her an obsession with blood and recourse to the steadying stillness of painting, which could create a painless beauty.

Frida's other accident, she tells us, was Diego Rivera, as much a carnal obsession as a husband. (He couldn't return her ardor--the reason might have been her considerable facial hair, though it seems she didn't object to his huge "breasts.") Furious at his infidelities--he betrayed her with her sister but forgave Frida her female liaisons--Frida divorced, then remarried Rivera, only to find herself lonelier and more helpless than before.

Lachman's artist delights in minor bohemian outrages, mocking gringos as so many "unbaked rolls" intent on buying up Mexico's beauty, fondling the bottled fetus she loves to paint, playing with her mischievous monkey (Paul Oakley Stovall, who in a sly touch also plays Rivera). Trying to drown her sorrows in drink, she sardonically notes that "they've learned how to swim."

But Lachman's impressionistic, scattershot script covers only the highlights, not the depths, of Frida's world. Though we glimpse the gallows humor meant to cloak the pain that dogged Frida Kahlo, the pain itself is hard to find in this plucky survivor. And the large Court house diffuses Lachman's efforts to connect with the audience. Seraphic serenity is a part of her sly portrayals, but whether it fits Kahlo--whose death from a drug overdose could well have been a suicide--remains in doubt. We sense here little of the anguish that must have preceded that death.

The most revealing views of Kahlo come from the parts of Mary Zimmerman's artful staging that work--from set designer Jeff Bauer's flower-painted hacienda and skeletons hovering above the audience, from Rita Pietraszek's tropical lighting, and from slide projections of Kahlo's lush, impassive self-portraits. Multihued streamers suggest Kahlo's delight in color, and an overlong dream sequence in dance shows the artist in a fantasy of regeneration through art complete with candles on the bedposts, a descending parasol, and gold powder sprinkled from above. A splendid mural by Marcos Raya fairly explodes on the theater's gray exterior, and the lobby features a rainbow-rich collection of diverse works by five artists inspired by Kahlo.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Bridges.

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