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Typical stage productions usually require dress rehearsals before their official premiere in order to do the final fine-tuning of what works and what doesn't. This fine-tuning mainly concerns nuances, not the main thrust. For a satirical performance, though, "what works and what doesn't" isn't a matter of nuances, but rather the main thrust itself. A performance that is entirely satire, or a kind of satirical cabaret (as opposed to stand-up monologues) is something quite rare in Israel as most satire in recent years (the past decade?) has been performed on television.

There, on TV, rehearsals don't actually occur: The broadcast is in fact the one and only time the material is tried out on a live audience. That is, putting aside the fact that the audience for a TV show is not live, even on a live broadcast. True, there may be a studio audience but most of the audience is not actually in the studio. Rather, it is at home with a finger on the remote. If it is angry or enjoying itself, agreeing or fuming - this is all evident in the ratings.

And here we have quite an astounding phenomenon, quite typical of Israel: Satirical shows can lash out at the right, the left, the center, the nation's sacred cows and its taboos - and their ratings are usually high. On the one hand, this might attest to the quality of the satirists as well as the reality in which we live, which is more hallucinatory than the wildest of satires. On the other hand, it might attest to the emotional apathy of an audience that no longer really gets upset about anything.

This is what was behind my decision to watch the first encounter between the show "Anxiety Disordered" and an audience last Thursday at Tzavta theater in Tel Aviv. On the one hand, this is another production in the Habimah repertoire, which according to the program will be performed about once a week, in a rather small hall (about 350 seats) described as a former "progressive culture club" identified with the left (Tzavta) - though for years now it has been a popular Tel Aviv complex of venues for various kinds of events.

On the other hand, the material was written by Ephraim Sidon and B. Michael, two writers from the legendary television show "Nikui Rosh" ("Cleaning the Head") - the other two writers were Kobi Niv and Hanoch Marmari, the editor and director was Mordechai Kirschenbaum.

In its day, "Nikui Rosh" raked in ratings of nearly 100 percent - because there was only one channel. But it is also remembered for its bite, daring and quality relative to its time. It was broadcast from 1974 to 1976 and aroused fierce objections from politicians and those striving good taste and consensus, but perhaps, in some sense, it helped spur the change of government in 1977. Not because it spared its rod from the right (on the contrary), but rather because it attacked - justifiably - the consensus that the ruling Labor Party thought it represented.

Laughing at ourselves

At any rate, the audience last Thursday looked like veterans of the left who had come to witness "Nikui Rosh" renew its glory days. They (and I) were there to see whether a satirical program can still annoy us and nevertheless make us laugh - we being not the extremists, but rather the apathetic moderate center that considers itself sane - and at the same time make us say to ourselves, like at the end of Nikolai Gogol's "The Inspector General": "What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves."

Here, then, after the first show - and I am intentionally concentrating on the material, though I would gladly praise the performance as well - it can be said that the creators of "Nikui Rosh" have not lost their spark in the areas of writing and directing, and a worthy generation of actors has arisen to succeed the actors on the television show.

Part of the secret of the success of this satirical show, as with that television program, lies in the correct dosage of annoying the audience by means of bringing up a certain topic that is the subject of public controversy and taking it apart in a way that's so irritating it is funny. The objective is to prevent the audience from rising up against the performance in the hall itself (something Hanoch Levin didn't always manage to achieve), while at the same time preventing the audience from wallowing in pleasure and ignoring the messages that should continue to disturb it despite the laughter.

One clear and interesting example of this can be seen in the evening's opening number, a kind of Gospel tune (with excellent music composed by Keren Peles). In it, a preacher (played by Tomer Sharon) preaches and sings, backed up by a singing and moving chorus of three (Tali Oren, Yael Levental and Alon Neuman). The song details every reason to be anxious: the Iranian atom, swine flu, the economy, the settlements, poverty, violence and the Palestinians. In short, it is an enthusiastic anthem to the god of anxiety - of whom we have all become worshippers and to whom all of us are addicted.

From its title to its stage set (two bottles of Prozac - as one audience member who passed in front of me diagnosed - and bottles of pills in the background; there is no credit given to the set designer), the show is a diagnosis: The Israeli public suffers from anxiety, and this is its leaders' aim. The song ends with the preacher's acknowledgment: "And that's the way we want you."

I am prepared to agree with the diagnosis, and in this context it is perhaps worth considering that in recent books about two major Israeli writers, Amos Kenan and Nissim Aloni, the authors - Nurit Gertz and Sarit Fuchs, respectively - suggest they suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following the War of Independence. However, I am not convinced that the audience in the hall saw itself as suffering from any such disorder, and perhaps what is missing here is a verse that says this explicitly. It is clear, however, that Sidon, Michael and Kirschenbaum know how to sell the bitter pill to the patients - and make them like it.

Macabre humor

It is very tempting to detail skit after skit and rejoice in the funny bits, such as Dov Navon as an ultra-Orthodox man trying to organize the audience, separating women and men, sending away the impure - the homosexuals, whom he calls by the affectionate mock-Yiddish name alizkalech - and, among other things, asking with very naturally, "Are there any dead people here?"

It is equally tempting to recall the details of the skit in the office of the psychiatrist (Sharon), to whom Alon Neuman comes with the problem that, unlike those around him, he is not a racist; or to admire the monologue of the ultra-Orthodox settler woman (Levental) who sweetly tells the audience, "You people are for culture and we are for reproduction" (which is funnier in Hebrew as the combination of culture and reproduction is a play on words). There are also two very sharp sketches dealing with the occupation, another scene devoted to the rabbis' takeover of the Israel Defense Forces, and an excellent parody of Natan Alterman's song "Eliphelet" set to melody by Sasha Argov.

Interestingly, the audience evinces a great deal of patience for macabre humor. Skits and topics that, when sanely considered after the fact, should have elicited revolt, revulsion and shock, were greeted with thunderous laughter - among them a skit about the media looking for horrors or the hair-raising firing sketch.

However, it is perhaps most important to note the two final sketches. The first of them is a monologue delivered by a woman (brilliantly rendered by Tali Oren) who is a veteran of the demonstrations at Rabin Square marking the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. She explains to the audience her problem that with each successive year the crowd at the demonstration gets smaller: For how many years will one assassination be able to attract a crowd? she asks.

When the audience understands the inevitable answer, silence prevails because the answer is hard to digest. Everyone thinks, "What she is saying, in fact, is that we need another assassination," but is afraid to admit to himself that he is thinking this. The moment Oren is about to reveal this thought and even before the audience can express its shock, she (and the writers of the skit) move on to the practical question of the potential candidate for assassination who could bring masses out to the square. The appalled shock collapses into grim laughter: today there are no leaders "worth" assassinating. Even if just for the dynamic in the hall at this moment, it was worth putting on this show.

The final monologue is delivered by Alon Neuman, portraying someone fleeing from his own image in the mirror. He has trained himself not to believe anything, not to want anything, not to get angry about anything. He has also, by means of the remote control, trained the media not to deliver any reality to him or give him a hard time or force him to think. What scares him is the spark in his eye that is liable to extricate him from his apathetic tranquillity. This, until he manages to get inside the mirror, leaving the audience to deal with its own face reflecting back. Brilliantly, this satirical entertainment arrives at the place the character of Hamlet, in the play of that name, describes as "the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

This is the official ending of the show. The finale chorus, which parallels the opening Gospel number, affords Navon a brilliant moment as Moses rejoicing at not been allowed to enter the Promised Land as he knows what troubles it will bring.

On the way out, in my Kalnoit motorized cart, I followed two women from the audience down Ibn Gavirol Street (a handicapped person has the advantage of being invisible, able to eavesdrop undisturbed) and I apologize in advance for the discourtesy. They concluded that they had expected to be entertained more; they correctly classified the work as a show of the sane left. One of the women noted that there were also attacks on the sane left itself; the other agreed and thought there should have been more. She defined herself as leaning toward the sane left herself and started a sentence with "But" - but then the two stopped in front of the window of a shoe store.

As I moved off I heard them talking about Danny Ayalon and the Turkish ambassador; it seemed to me they thought that incident was at least as funny as the show. At least up until the shoe store. Can a satirical show in Israel today (with a Turkish film as the reality) hope for more?