The Times They Are a-Changin’

The king is dead; long live the fairy queen.

Last week’s biggest show was easily the inauguration festivities for
President Obama, so it’s no surprise that local theater companies are
getting in on the act with various depictions of regime change.

In its longtime home at Live Oak Theatre, the community theater
company Actors Ensemble of Berkeley is taking on Eugene Ionesco’s 1962
absurdist drama Exit the King, depicting the drawn-out death of
a once-godlike king who can no longer command the forces of nature. His
kingdom is shrinking, time is speeding up, and the people around him
are mysteriously becoming incapable of following his commands. His
first wife and his doctor regard his decline with smug satisfaction and
gloating; his younger trophy wife dotes on him and tries to stave off
the inevitable.

Sometime Actors Ensemble performer Jerome Solberg makes his company
directing debut with a static, sometimes tedious staging enlivened by
Norman Macleod’s nuanced performance as the king, a crotchety old
codger veering between irritability, self-pity, panic, exhaustion, and
rhapsodic nostalgia. Beth Chastain’s Queen Marguerite maintains a
spiteful, impassive air of authority that largely seems to keep her
aloof from the action of the play. Satya Soleil Starr injects some
dynamism as the kittenish Queen Marie, cooing over the king with an air
of doting desperation, even if both her sobs and giggles are sometimes
over the top.

Alecks Rundell delivers all the doctor’s lines with unvarying smarmy
expression and repetitive gestures, and Melanie Curry (once my boss at
this newspaper) is placidly matter-of-fact as the maid Juliette. As the
Guard in a tall bearskin hat, Jose Garcia is a bit stiff in his
monologues listing the past glories of the king but amusing in his
primary task of shouting inane status reports in town-crier
fashion.

Helen Slomowitz’s costumes are appropriately regal and rough around
the edges at the same time, but Shu Ping Guan’s ramshackle set is a
mess of flattened cardboard boxes taped together. At some point the
tops of the cardboard pillars are raised on wires, possibly to indicate
things falling apart, but the effect is so clumsy and underwhelming
that it’s not worth the effort.

The show is a little under two hours without an intermission, and
Marguerite tells the king early on just how much time both he and the
play have left. The trouble is, as things fall apart and drag on at the
same time, this makes one want to count the minutes along with her,
increasingly ready for the end to come.

Meanwhile, Lamplighters Music Theatre moves from San Francisco’s
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center with
one of the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas it’s specialized in since
1952, this one a restaging of Jane Erwin Hammett’s 2003 production of
Iolanthe (which also happens to prominently feature a guard in a
bearskin hat).

Iolanthe, or The Peer and the Peri, pits the British
Parliament against the faerie folk, as a young half-fairy shepherd
competes against the entire House of Lords for the affection of a
beautiful young ward of the court. Shepherd Strephon eventually gets
placed in Parliament himself by the Fairy Queen as head of both the
liberal and conservative factions, but as a plot point it’s nearly
inconsequential.

The lords are delightful in Lamplighters’ production, entering with
great pomp singing “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes.” F. Lawrence
Ewing is particularly amusing as a Lord Chancellor torn between his
meticulous sense of duty and his attraction to his young charge, and
Robert Stafford and Eric Ranelletti also quite funny as two lords vying
for Phyllis’s affection.

Sharon Rietkerk makes a sprightly Phyllis, priceless in her
guileless naiveté, and William Giammona an appropriately
strapping Strephon. Katy Daniel doesn’t stand out much amid the throng
as the Queen of the Fairies, but Cary Ann Rosko brings a simple
sincerity to Iolanthe, Strephon’s fairy mother who committed the crime
of marrying a mortal.

The singing is terrific throughout, as is the orchestra conducted by
music director James Campbell. The production looks sharp, between
Jean-François Revon’s enticing sets of oversize leaves and
leaning London towers and Judy Jackson MacIlvaine’s playful costumes of
bright ermine robes for the lords and colorful flowing fairy getups for
the ladies, like an entire species of Stevie Nickses.

Despite its teasing quasi-political theme, Iolanthe is a
lightweight confection even for Gilbert and Sullivan, with a
gossamer-thin plot low on ingenious paradoxes and a few laborious
Latinate lyrics. But as Lamplighters’ effervescent production
demonstrates, it’s also feel-good entertainment well suited to a moment
in history when a citizen might actually begin to warily contemplate
feeling good.

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