nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 16, 2006
This is the second production of Hanoch Levin's play Retzach to be presented in New York this season; obviously there's something in this 1997 Israeli drama (whose Hebrew title means "unwarranted murder") that's resonating with people at this particular moment.
But being moved by a work and successfully translating it (in every sense of that complicated word) to a new cultural context are very different things, and if my colleague Jeff Lewonczyk is to be believed about this season's earlier attempt, Levin's play is steadfastly resisting it. Certainly this production, from Crooked Timber Productions in association with VOICETheatre, while arresting in places, manages to offer nothing interesting or compelling about a subject that ought to be fraught with significance.
The subject is murder, and not just any random killing but the kind that stems from that old biblical phrase about an eye for an eye. Levin was specifically addressing the situation between his countrymen and the Palestinians, but cycles of vengeance that go on seemingly endlessly to no purpose other than to destroy one innocent life after another are as old as humanity. Dramatists have chronicled and lamented this through the ages, as long ago as Euripides's Hecuba and as recently as Glyn O'Malley's Paradise, to name just two valuable examples that have been seen on New York stages within the past year.
Retzach's take, at least as depicted in this translation by Liat Glick, Tzahi Moskovitz, and director Shauna Kanter, is to alternate scenes of blood lust with scenes of the other kind of lust. Soldiers kill a boy for no apparent reason and are resolutely lacking in remorse when the boy's father confronts them. Then, a bride and groom rush away from their wedding reception, apparently unwilling/unable to wait until nighttime to consummate their new vows; the young man is performing oral sex on his wife when the father from the first scene arrives and brutally shoots him down. In the final scene, a peeping Tom, masturbating outside a brothel, is incorrectly (though perhaps not mistakenly) identified as the "murderer" and beaten to death by three prostitutes.
I don't understand why Levin chose to juxtapose relatively perverse manifestations of sex with scenes of murder (in contrast, had he placed scenes of love and/or procreation side-by-side with scenes of destruction, an intention would have been much clearer). A problem is that I can't tell how much of what I saw is Kanter (and her collaborators) and how much is Levin: is the native prudishness of Americans being imposed on the text, for example? Israelis live with threats of imminent terror and destruction every day; here, fortunately, we mostly do not. So an emphasis on the fundamental functions of the body means something different to us, maybe...
What I am sure of is that Kanter's vision, which is often quite interesting, has not been well-executed. A great deal of the play's action happens low on the floor, which is troublesome in a space like 59e59's Theater B where the audience looks down onto the stage—from the sixth row, a good deal of the action was difficult or even impossible to see. The language of the translation has that jarring, sing-songy quality that keeps you constantly aware that you're not hearing the original words of the author. The ensemble—impressively large—is very uneven, with only one performance (Raj Pannu's, as the peeping Tom) that can honestly be called distinguished. Visually, the piece is well-conceived and, in its most effective place, where video static is projected on the actors and the set, quite stunning.
Maybe there have just been too many anti-war plays passively applauded by the press corps and audience without actually making our present war go away; or maybe (as I think more likely) this production of Retzach is not doing its lauded source complete justice. Either way, I didn't find this show particularly engaging, and while I won't warn you away from it, neither will I recommend it. If Levin's work has merit, we need a company with the chops and the resources to show us what it has to teach us. And whether it does or not, we need theatre artists to find the subjects in their own worlds that arouse them, not retreads of a place and circumstance that, however timeless, fail to reflect the reality of our particular, troubling situation.