Review: ‘Exit the King’ by 4615 Theatre Company at the Classroom at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

From what I can gather, 4615 Theatre Company consists of actors, directors, and designers who are, by their own declaration, under 25 years old.

Kate Cough and Morgan Sendek. Photo courtesy of 4615 Theatre Company.
Kate Cough and Morgan Sendek. Photo by Anne Donnelly.

They select a play, find a space (basement, rehearsal room, and now the classroom at Woolly), give themselves 3 weeks to put the show together, and–Violá!–they have a show.

Now, in my 60s, I am ever more impressed with the wondrous eternity of youth.

Enter Exit the King, Eugene Ionesco’s 1962 parable on the dredges of death, whose guiding question is: How do we die?

The play is a poetic masterpiece.

Think King Lear without the complicated interweaving plots.

Think Everyman without the obfuscating religiosity.

Think your dying parent’s life compressed into a fierce 100 minutes.

4615’s production of Exit the King has all the exuberance, and contemporary zaniness of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Until it doesn’t.

When the production’s stylistic choices are clear, moving rapidly between farce and authenticity, the show is fabulous.

Ted Cruz mentioned “New York, New York” in the Republican debate the other night. Its placement in Exit the King would have done Donald Trump proud. A stroke of genius.

When lead actor Ahmad Kamal, who plays the dying King Berenger I, drops the façade of pomp and blowhard, his touching and human relationship to the audience scores volumes. Despite his ruinous behavior, which leads the kingdom into an environmental shambles, we care for him and want him no ill.

When the production’s choices waver, however, between farce and drama, or when they look a little too much like a SNL skit, the Woolly classroom’s intimate environment reveals their hesitancy.

By far the most totally engrossing performance of the evening was turned in by Kate Owens, playing Queen Marguerite, the king’s estranged first wife. She captures with grace the no-nonsense queen whose chillingly powerful, yet loving, directness ultimately wins the audience over to her side.

If only Lear had had such a protector of his delusional self.

Berenger’s second queen, Marie, is played by Caroline McQuaig. She too has some authentic tenderness, particularly when she is pleading with her love to remember her and their “eternal” love.

One of the best two-person exchanges of the evening was between Berenger and the Kingdom’s Girl Friday, the multi-talented Juliette, played by Morgan Sendek. Poor Juliette has to cook, clean, kill spiders, patch cracks in the wall, wait on both queens, retrieve fleeing Ministers of State, etc. As Berenger revels in how fabulous “life” is, Juliette cannot get beyond how tired “she” is, because she has to do all the work of the kingdom.

Curt Gavin plays the King’s guard, who also takes on the role of media sound bite proclaimer. Every time the King makes a definitive statement Gavin’s Guard announces it to the crowd of waiting spectators, i.e., audience members.

Finally, we have the good Doctor, played by Nick Byron. This is a clear case of Commedia’s Dottore Graziano finding his way into a modern production.

Exit the King was directed by Jordan Friend, 4615’s Artistic Director. He has used the rehearsal room’s intimate, and crowded square-footage, to good effect. As his program notes state quite plainly, he discovered the script’s complexity during rehearsals.

Aria Nawab, Anne Donnelly, and Jordan Friend did the show’s scenic design. Particular praise needs to go to whoever did the simple yet effective sketches for the Doctor’s various lazzi.

Costume and Makeup were by Paul Alan Hogan.

To be sure, youthful productions are the life blood on any vital theatrical culture. Those who are crazy enough just “to do it” keep the establishment artists looking over their shoulders.

With arts funding in Washington ever more skewed toward the “big boys” on the block and on the solidification of the theatrical gatekeepers, it’s good to know that the upstarts are still out there barking at the limos.

With Caroline McQuaig, Ahmad Sherif Helmy, Kate Cough, and Morgan Sendek. Photo courtesy of 4615 Theatre Company.
Caroline McQuaig, Ahmad Kamal, Kate Cough, and Morgan Sendek. Photo by Anne Donnelly.

Exit the King is an intimate theatergoer’s performance paradise. You can touch the actors, feel their dying breath, and get knocked in the knees when they fall.

If that’s not enough reason to check it out, then see them for the pure audacity of it: young theatre artists plus a rarely done great play equals a theatre group with a future.

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, without an intermission.

Exit the King plays through January 22, 2016 at the rehearsal room at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company – 641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (301) 928-2738, or buy them online.

RATING: FOUR-STARS110.gif

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Robert Michael Oliver
Poet, Performer, Theatre Artist, Playwright, Educator, Writer--Robert Michael Oliver, Ph.D., has been involved in the DC arts scene since the 1980s, when he co-founded The Sanctuary Theatre in the old sanctuary of Calvary United Methodist Church. Since those fierce days in Columbia Heights, he has earned his doctorate in theatre from University of Maryland, raised two wonderful children, and seen more theatre as a reviewer over the last two years than he saw in the previous thirty. He now co-directs, along with his wife Elizabeth Bruce, the Sanctuary's Performing Knowledge Project, which organizes a host of writing and performance workshops, plus Mementos: Poetry and Performance for Seniors, a yearly literature-in-performance Fringe Festival show, as well as Performetry--a monthly poetry and prose performance event at DC's community arts & culture center BloomBars.

1 COMMENT

  1. A fantastic cast and an amazing performance. Ahmad Kamal is very impressive in this difficult role.
    I highly recommend this play to theater lovers. Bravo??

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