Light shone on a young monarch (Tal Venig) at Tel Aviv’s Tmuna Theater. He lifted a microphone-like scepter to his varnished face and screamed his name: “Berenger!”
Electric guitars blared as two queens (Marguerite/Dana Elazar and Marie/Shir Bernstein) somersaulted across the stage and his court physician (Gal Dorenfeld) conversed with the audience.
Dorenfeld told us the king will die. There was no hope. Confetti fell from the ceiling. The king cracked crude jokes about bedding Hitler’s girlfriend and seemed very much alive. The kingdom he lords over shrank. It was fun to watch Eugène Ionesco’s Exit the King.
Berenger is Ionesco’s most important character. Before he was king, he served as the everyman in Rhinoceros (1959). In that play Berenger refused to conform to a society rapidly sickening around him. As his peers turned green and grew horns, Berenger was unable to gallop with the herd. When Chaim Topol and Yaakov Bodo performed the play in 1962, theater critic Asher Nahor coined a term that has lived in Hebrew since: “Hitkarnefut” (“rhinocification”). The process where individuals willingly adopt majority norms, even if they are false.
Ionesco is one of the greatest French-language absurd theater writers. In this play, masterfully translated by Dori Parnas, Berenger must face the fate of all individuals – demise, the creeping loss of warmth, death.
An even-more-modern adaptation
By trimming down much of the original work to expose a naked emotional engine, director Matan Dari Badash lost two characters (the Maid and the Guard) and much of the textual brilliance of the play. Ionesco was fascinated by language and stumbled into writing his first play, The Bald Soprano (1950), while studying one, English. Badash gained an absurdist play for Gen Z. Her youthful monarch lords over a court of his peers. His rapid health collapse and failure to ensure his kingdom prospers reflect the concerns of a generation stripped of progress as it faces global warming and rising inflation.
This is in sharp contrast to the award-winning 2013 Ensemble Itim production of the same play under director Rina Yerushalmi. In it, Doron Tavori was the aging monarch and Razia Israeli the older queen to a Marie played by Nathalie Berman. This gave the rivalry between the two queens, and the tragedy of a king facing his end, an emotional beauty and pain that this production lacks.
Tavori’s king had two extra characters to work with, more time, and all the lines he was meant to speak.
Tavori’s Berenger confesses he once loved a ginger cat. “The Jewish cat I called him,” he confides, and shares how a dog killed it and broke his child’s heart.
Venig’s king must squeeze this entire scene into one line. “I love a white cat,” he tells Marie as she implores his wheelchair-bound body to remember her.
When Noam Ben Azar played the physician, he and Tavori discussed the many murders (“not murders Majesty, executions!”) the scientist did on behalf of the state. Dorenfeld’s doctor looks like Space Ace from the rock band Kiss.
“To every art there are two,” German sculptor Ernst Barlach said, “one who makes it, and one who needs it.” The audience who cheered the excellent performance at Tmuna was encouraged to take many photographs and post them on social media platforms. This production does not allude nor hint. Everything is straight up, on the nose. “Who is the king?” Venig asked, “is it Donald Trump? Is it King David?” A comedian-king, this Berenger said the former US president’s name with a taunting American accent as the crowd laughed. “Ze Donald Truuummp?!”
Consider what makes King David royal, worthy of an entire nation pinning its hope of salvation on him alone.
When facing a screaming Shimei bellowing “Get out, get out, you man of blood!” (2 Samuel 16:7) Abishai offers David to cut off Shimei’s head. David, fleeing the open rebellion of his son Absalom, tells him no.
“Let him curse,” David says, “for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today” (16:12)
David does not then take a selfie and post it online with “#blessed” or “concubines and sons of your own flesh, am I right?! LOL.” Oedipus Rex is a tragedy because Oedipus is a just king. He investigates the reasons for a pandemic and realizes the fault is with him. Caricatures of kings are not tragic; they do not offer catharsis.
Through Israeli eyes, Venig channels a very special sort of king that once did lord over this country. Dudu Topaz was the “King of Ratings” when commercial television started here in the mid-1990s. Before him, Dan Ben-Amotz organized his own death party at the Hamam club in Jaffa, a real-world Exit the King. When Venig groped Marie he was also channeling Uri Zohar, the comedian-turned-film director who was the enfant terrible of this society before embracing faith. Venig’s death on the stage, then, is symbolic of the passing of an entire Israeli model of masculinity.
In the full version of the play, Ionesco has the guard read out the many exploits of the king, who invented the tractor and gathered fire with his hands.
“Perhaps,” Marie tells Berenger, “if children study this history you could return, live again.”
Badash has Venig play a drum solo, the king might be dead, but the beat goes on.
For tickets and more info: https://www.tmu-na.org.il/
The Ensemble Itim production can be seen at https://bit.ly/3NErLu1