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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