'Queen of the Bathtub'
A performance of Hanoch Levin's 'Queen of the Bathtub' in June 2010. Photo by Cameri Theater Archives and Iliya Dominov
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Decades after its short run, Hanoch Levin's 'Queen of the Bathtub' was staged in Tel Aviv. The cabaret is even more relevant today The bathtub kingdom was in existence for some two months, 40 years ago. Hanoch Levin's satirical cabaret, "Queen of the Bathtub," with music by Zohar Levy, opened under the direction of David Levin on April 20, 1970, at Tel Aviv's Nahmani Auditorium, the home of the Cameri Theater at the time. Even before its premiere the cabaret was subject to a campaign of incitement and intimidation by journalists who had read the texts in their capacity as members of the council that supervised films and plays (and which had approved it ).

 

The first performances were met with a public outcry and violent disturbances. The reviews were devastating. The playwright and the theater were accused of hurting the feelings of the parents of deceased soldiers, insulting the Israel Defense Forces and damaging public morale.

A meeting of the Cameri actors' council was scheduled, with the intent of closing the show, but on May 19, the day before the meeting, the director of the theater, Jeshajahu Weinberg, decided to cancel future performances. The show ran without incident for another month or so, to audiences that had already purchased tickets. And then, in the middle of June, the bathtub kingdom ceased to exist.

Forty years later, as part of an exercise in direction in the master's program at Tel Aviv University's Theater Department, Marat Parkhomovsky staged an adaption of the cabaret. Since the department did not obtain performance permission from the copyright owners, there was no publicity for the handful of performances, which were held in Schottlander Auditorium (Room 140 ) in the university's Gilman Building, by invitation only. I was there, as I had been in the Nahmani hall in 1970, and I can testify that after 40 years Levin's satirical skits, which were written in response to the reality of that time, in and of themselves and in the way they were presented now, are an extremely accurate, cruel and current portrait of how we look today. Levin's diagnosis of five issues that are fundamental to our existence as a society, that led to his being considered a traitor and of hating Israel, are even more valid now than they were then. Most of us recognize this by now. But during that entire time we did nothing, and are doing nothing still. That is terrible.

In his version, Parkhomovsky in effect created a single play from the skits, with an extratheatrical metaplot that is complete and sequential and makes a statement that is relevant to contemporary audiences of today while also containing references to the fact that the play is about both then and now.

In the first act is a romantic meeting between Hulda Dever (a Hebrew-sounding name whose literal meaning is "rat plague" ), played by Rina Kwartin, who says of herself: "I grew and developed like the music of a flute," and District Commander 1st Lt. Boaz the Brave, who at 15 was anointed "high priest of the Gadna" (a pre-army military program ). He is played by Tomer Jakubczak, who bears a remarkable resemblance to the young Gidi Gov. This is critical to the play, because the actor, singer and media figure represents the ultimate, good Israeli, who is the same age as the state. That is the starting point of the inward-focused Israeli experience: In their courtship, he and she are alongside each other, but each is in love with and engaged in pursuing himself or herself.

At this point, Parkhomovsky leaps over a lot of material to reach "Chambalulu," with Ze'ev (Avishai Mangerski ) and Chambalulu (Rotem Blau ), who do army reserve duty together. Once every 10 years, when there is a war, they are like brothers, or as Ze'ev's wife, Hulda, elaborates: "One brother is an officer and the other a cook." As civilians, they show great affection for each other at a chance meeting because "Zeev is an engineer and my father's a contractor," as Hulda explains, while Chambalulu is "sometimes a waiter, sometimes a shoemaker and sometimes nothing." When they part and Hulda suggests, "Sometime, if you feel bad, why don't you jump [a Hebrew idiom for 'pop in']; really, why don't you jump sometime?" But when Chambalulu asks, "Where do you live?," she replies sweetly, "I meant, from the roof." Can you spell socioeconomic gaps?

On to relations with the Arabs, Israeli Arabs and the Palestinians. In 1970 most of us were not yet aware of the complexities and the significance of all this with regard to the occupation and terrorism and our individual and societal characters. Four old, enlightened Israelis - Tovaleh, Yofila, Menuha and Shalva - describe "our Arab" Samatokha as "clever and obedient and harmless to Jews. He can stand upright, just like us." All four actors (except for Samatokha, a silent female portrayed by Shimrit Malul ) fall into the usual trap set for young actors playing old people, but that's not important. Samatokha remains mum. Shalva ["serenity"] loses his cool over Samatokha's failure to express gratitude for Shalva's not smashing his head, despite the bomb in the Cameri offices and despite everyone knowing that Samatokha had nothing to do with it. "I don't care whether he'll have eyes if only he'd at least appreciate it, but he thinks it's natural," Shalva says. "The fact that we're a cultured, humane people that doesn't gouge out his eyes after the bombing in the Cameri offices doesn't even occur to him."

Before Menuha and Shalva have to hold each other to keep from pouncing on Samatokha, Yofila intercedes: "As the mother of three children, one of whom is a combat soldier, and as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, I am qualified to state: Don't harm the Arab, there are lots of dirty cups in the kitchen."

The skit "The Binding of Isaac" and the song that followed it, "Dear Father," were the focus of the public furor over "Queen of the Bathtub" in 1970. It is easy to see why. In it Levin touches on the myth, on the feelings of bereavement at the level of the individual (the dialogue is between Abraham, who does the binding, and Isaac, who is about to be sacrificed, and the argument focuses on "who is the victim here" ), and of the collective, for which bereavement is a terrible, daily possibility. Here Parkhomovsky introduces the most interesting theatrical move: Malul, as Samatokha, goes upstage and during the entire act is working a kitchen knife on a cutting board. Mangerski plays Abraham and Jakubczak (the young Gidi Gov ) is Isaac, who not merely does not make it difficult for his father to carry out his divine assignment but even encourages him with bombastic and bitter lofty phrases, simultaneously accepting his fate and mocking his father's sacrifice. At the moment of the appearance of the ram Kwartin replaces Jakubczak on the altar and begins abusing Samatokha with increasing violence. At the end of the act Isaac convinces Abraham that indeed a voice was heard saying "Do not lay a hand on the boy." Father and son relax in the knowledge that they did the right thing from their respective, asking, "What will happen if other fathers have to slaughter their sons; who will save them?" Samatokha has already fled the stage, as Jakubczak searches for him in the audience. Isaac, who was saved from sacrifice, is hunting Samatokha.

As the eponymous "Queen of the Bathtub," the main skit, approaches, Malul returns as Fleisher, the Jewish-Israeli Princess, but all she does is act like a zombie with no will of its own, beaten, bruised and moving like a robot.

In this skit Levin stripped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of its historical, religious and ideological trappings and presented it as a conflict between tenants over the use of a bathtub. Parkhomovsky's casting here deliberately repeats that of the previous acts. Jakubczak, Boaz, and Isaac - who abused Samatokha and is now the head of the family, Prof. Duvshani, an enlightened, intelligent, bleeding-heart liberal who is dominated by his wife. He is also the narrator. The subletter, Yekutieli (played by Mangerski, who was Ze'ev the officer and Abraham who was ready to sacrifice his son ), is a distant cousin of his whom his wife cannot stand. He is not a pleasant man and has openly threatened to molest the daughter, Fleisher. Rotem Blau, who played Chambalulu, is Yevtusheva, the mother, the Big Woman of the dreams and nightmares of Zionism. In retaliation for Yekutieli's failure to mop the floor after he showers she leads the family in an attempt to take control of the bathtub. Her husband's attempts at protest ("I'm ashamed" ) are eliminated. When Yekutieli places chairs in the hall in an attempt to prevent the family from going out they burst through and the son, Magentse, declares: "The toilet is in our hands." Yevtusheva fixes her gaze on her reflection in the water in the toilet and whispers, "We have returned." (This all alludes to post-Six-Day-War headlines and statements ). She declares the bathtub her kingdom and herself its queen. Yekutieli is forced to relieve himself in his pants. And the husband sums up: "And if my wife has not died in the meantime then she is living to this day as she sits on the toilet, setting off supersonic booms and sprouting her speeches." The speech could have been taken from the Knesset records of the time: "Peace is our only desire. Bring us peace. We want peace. Peace is uppermost in our minds. Give us peace. We beg for peace. Bring us peace."

Parkhomovsky ends with the song: "There are therefore still beautiful moments, there are still hopes and faith, because the good Lord who is surrounded by pilots in the heavens above will console us with a few who had just simply died (as opposed to being killed in a war )."

He did not include in his revival the two final songs from 1970, which were a direct and blunt attack on the audience: "Lick, Brothers, Lick" and "The Kingdom Is Complete," the second verse of which asks: "What will we tell our sons on those future days, / When all the reasons we had ever had / By the flow of time will be drenched? / That we aimed for the best, one heart and hand / And now even we cannot understand / How all that remained is the stench."

But he does not leave the question without a reply. At the end of the performance, Shimrit Malul, Samatokha-Fleisher-Israel Today, remains on the chair, in a state of shock, beaten and bruised, and for many long seconds her dry throat emits a totally desperate, loud and wild cry of helpless agony, in light of the fact that 40 years ago we could have known, but to this day we do not know.