Xander Layden’s Funny Horror Tale The King in Yellow

by Molly Gilmore

Layers of mystery surround Theater Artists Olympia’s The King in Yellow, a world-premiere play inspired by a book (Robert W. Chambers’ 1895 The King in Yellow) about a play (also called The King in Yellow) that drives those who see it insane. The TAO play, penned by well-known Olympia actor Xander Layden, is not the play that causes madness — whew! — but rather an original play about that play.

The story behind this King, opening May 10, is more than a little confusing, and Layden delights in that. “The King in Yellow cannot be defined by any known standard,” he opines in a Masterpiece-style video (https://youtu.be/DJ1FNQ1Eja0?si=Q8yOWPL7MjDqoc2P) that asks but does not answer the question “Who is the king in yellow?”

You could do the research. Chambers’ book makes reference to earlier works and has since sparked the imaginations of more than a century of creators. Ultimately, though, this production stands on its own. “You can’t really call it an adaptation,” Layden said. “It’s just really a love letter.”

Things get scary — and at some point bloody — before King is over. From left are Victoria Austin, Ethan Bujeaud and Paige Doyle (holding the ventriloquist’s dummy referred to as Puppet).

You’ll be ready for it — assuming that horror, violence, stage blood and even a ventriloquist’s dummy won’t disturb you — if you simply expect the unexpected. “Be prepared for some mind-altering experiences,” Layden warns in the video. “The King in Yellow is a play in which the purest essence of poison lurks.”

“It’s like nothing I’ve seen around here,” said director Pug Bujeaud, “It’s like nothing I’ve seen anywhere. It’s cosmic. It’s a progression from Victorian romantic comedy of manners to existential horror. It’s not an arc that you see very often in theater.”

Bujeaud’s mix of amazement and glee means even more when you consider the unusual and sometimes terrifying shows she’s directed over the years. Among them are The Head That Wouldn’t Die, an original musical that she and her TAO team adapted from a B-movie and presented in 2014 and 2015, and 2023’s The Mystery Plays, a Twilight Zone-ish anthology that included a frighteningly realistic tale about a serial killer.

“This play is right up my personal alley, and it’s the kind of thing people associate with TAO,” Bujeaud said. “Even though TAO does many different things from broad comedies to historical dramas, people remember the kind of edgy, violent stuff that we’ve done. That’s kind of our reputation.”

Rodman Bolek and Paige Doyle have fun with the light and fluffy first half of Theater Artists Olympia’s The King in Yellow.

Bujeaud and Layden have long made theater together: Bujeaud first directed him — when he was just 18 — in Olympia Little Theatre’s 2012 Night Must Fall. Layden went on to star in both productions of Head. “We workshopped that project heavily,” the director said. “It was very collaborative.” Layden was in Mystery Plays, too.

Fittingly, another Bujeaud production — OLT’s 2019 Bunbury, a 2007 comic fantasy by Tom Jacobson, mashes up characters from Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and more— played a key part in Layden’s concept for the script. “I’d been wanting to create my own spin on the material for ages,” the playwright said. “I was inspired to do this particular spin on it after watching Bunbury at OLT and seeing that kind of spin on Wildean material. That sort of drawing-room comedy seemed like it could pair really well with this sort of cosmic horror material.”

It’s just the kind of show that Bujeaud loves to direct. She calls it “the weirdest thing I’ve ever done, and about Layden. “He’s just amazingly talented and smart and wonderful,” she said. “I’m a big fan.”

Victoria Austin is prim and proper in King, at least until her character encounters the play that leads to madness.

She’s also overjoyed about the cast: Victoria Austin, Kate Ayers, Rodman Bolek, Ethan Bujeaud (the director’s son) and Paige Doyle. “Some of my favorite people ever to work with are in the show,” she said.

“I love doing dark things so much,” she added. “I love the process. The dark things give me more joy than trying to find the timing of a comedy.”

Bujeaud recommends the play for ages 13 and up.

Photos courtesy of Theater Artists Olympia.

The King in Yellow

7:30 p.m. May 10, 11, 17. 18, 24 and 25 and 2 p.m. May 12, 19 and 26

OlyTheater, Capital Mall, 625 Black Lake Blvd., Olympia



Poster art by pug Bujeaud
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