Hanoch Levin is well regarded in Israel as an outspoken voice of the stage. The original 1970 production of his landmark work The Queen of the Bathtub, an invective against Golda Meir's administration, caused nightly demonstrations in Tel Aviv. The play was deemed too great a risk, and the Cameri Theater ended the run after only 18 performances. It is not often that a performance makes itself known outside a theater's walls; that it is allowed to preach to anyone other than its well-cultured choir. And yet the Personal Space Theatrics's performance of Levin's Murder seemed to me less a wake-up call about the continuing danger of Middle East violence than a parade of that violence being performed for shock value. Audience members surround the performance space on three sides, sitting on risers that allow us to not only see the actors who perform so close but also to witness each others' reactions to the violence being enacted. Four television screens, bolted from the ceiling, depict real moments of violence and unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Whether the fault lies with the text or with Michael Wielselberg's adaptation and direction is not an easy question to answer. This production, however, did not seem to live up to the praise that Levin's text has generated. Rather, it glorifies a chain of violence that could have been mitigated by the under-explained "Messenger" whose voice interrupted many of the scenes.
But a much larger question must also be asked: What power does theater have to heal and teach when the violence that it stages is being enacted much more dramatically, much more consequentially on the streets of Basra and Baghdad? Murder is an assault on the senses in the name of what, exactly? Catharsis? Understanding? Betterment?
In the play, a young boy who seems to be a member of a local insurgency is hunted down and cornered by four American soldiers in an unidentified country. They taunt and beat him until he is left cowering on the ground, pleading for his father. He is stabbed in the back, his eye is plucked out, and the blood from deep within him oozes from his mouth. Capable of neither mercy nor self-control, the soldiers kill the boy just as his distressed father comes to look for him. "So now I'm left with the body," the father sobs in a moment of utter despair.
Years later, we find that the man is a seething victim of despair. He has become what the soldiers once were