‘Constant Mourner’ a veritable garden of delights

He’s not a bad man, the king (Morris Cohen), he just wants his son back.

A SCENE from Hanoch Levin’s  ‘The Constant Mourner.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
A SCENE from Hanoch Levin’s ‘The Constant Mourner.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘The Constant Mourner’
Written by Hanoch Levin
Directed by Ari Folman
Cameri Theater, February 24, 2020
He’s not a bad man, the king (Morris Cohen), he just wants his son back. His son has died, you see, died hard, died suffering, and the king is devastated, ravaged. The pain of losing his son is overwhelming but not enough to drive him mad, the shrewd mind specialist (Yoav Levi) tells him. And anyway, little by little, time will blunt the pain and everyday life will take over. “The others will go about their business. Only you will remain alone.”
That can’t be, mustn’t be, so every year the king chooses a child as a surrogate to his lost son, to die as his son did, in agony so that the king will never lose the awful immediacy of that overwhelming grief, never even considering that the chosen child also has a father.
Constant Mourner is a cautionary tale in which playwright Hanoch Levin reminds us that we cannot ride roughshod over other people; that it behooves us, as Leviticus 19:18 tells us, “to love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Celebrated film director Ari Folman has taken the bones of Levin’s fable and turned them into a sort of “garden of earthly delights” a la Hieronymus Bosch. It features all kinds of strange creatures as the sycophantic courtiers – some animalistic, others mechanical – and a kind of renaissance landscape of a set (David Polonski) through which some of the many characters enter first virtually via Yoav Cohen’s compelling video art, and then in reality through the archway that divides real from (as it were), virtual time. The bier, upon which lies the dead child, is sometimes reached by a staircase, as if to change the frame of reference. Efrat Ben Tzur’s haunting music (played live) augments events.
Folman is also inviting us to consider the choices we make; that we need to think through; that chaos may result if we don’t, as in the chaotic segment where the king’s big toe assumes frenetic control, or as when the king suddenly changes his mind about the annual sacrifice.
That Constant Mourner is compelling is an understatement. Throughout the nearly two-hour performance, there was not a rustle from the enthralled audience.
Dressed all in red crushed velvet – the eye-catching costumes are by Orna Smorgonski – Morris’s king is properly regal yet agonizingly human. Minds specialist Levi is all in black – a hint maybe to the Angel of Death – and he is wondrously glib, unsentimentally direct.
As Doctors 1 & 2, Eran Mor and Tal Weiss are not healers, they’re hardly people. They’re bureaucrats with a job to do. Professional weepers Yossi Segal and Yossi Kantz busily inject some necessary humor, and yes, decency. They are dressed in white, as are the children, the enshrouder (Eran Sarel) and the nurse (Maya Landesman), as if to say that purity lurks somewhere. Sarel (barefoot as if to emphasize his connection to the Earth) is appropriately stoical about his task, and Landesman does her best with a character that never quite makes up its mind who or what it is.
The Constant Mourner (1992), perhaps the precursor to the poignant The Child Dreams that came out the following year, is an odd play that stutters over how it says what it wants to say, is oddly uninvolving, but the production is brilliant.