Murder most foul

Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin sparked controversy during his lifetime. His plays continue to do so five years after his death. A new local production of Levin’s “Murder” is a case in point.

At a panel discussion following a Friday, Aug. 6, performance in San Francisco, former Israeli cultural attaché Donny Inbar snapped at one woman in the audience for her apparent unwillingness to utter the word “Israel.” It was a moment indicative of the strong feelings the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict evokes.

“Murder” is a wrenching one-act play about violence and revenge. It seemingly takes place in Israel and the territories, but its cast of characters could have been any victims and victimizers anywhere.

But the Second Wind Productions staging at the Phoenix Theater, which marked the play’s West Coast premiere, made clear the characters were indeed Israelis and Palestinians.

Inbar was one of several discussion leaders featured during the early run of the play. Previous guests included representatives of the anti-Israel International ANSWER and the left-leaning A Jewish Voice for Peace. Inbar was the only guest with a pro-Israel point of view.

After the performance of the play (which includes scenes of point-blank execution, mutilation, mob beatings and a beheading), the audience was served wine and cookies as Inbar addressed the audience of 50.

Sitting alone on the stage, Inbar spoke in depth about Levin’s life and work. He read a few of Levin’s poems, one of which, “Chess,” has been set to music and is now considered a modern Israeli pop classic.

He noted how early in Levin’s career, outraged Israeli audiences threw bricks at the stage following some performances, but that over time he came to be lionized as a national cultural treasure.

“Murder” is a 1997 opus that drew on elements from Levin’s days in political cabaret. “It doesn’t matter where [the violence] starts,” said Inbar of Levin’s theme, “because it doesn’t start and it doesn’t end. Levin educated the Israeli people, and every production was a national celebration for theater-lovers.”

Though Inbar wanted to keep the discussion centered on Levin, audience members seemed to prefer the topic of Middle East politics. One asked Inbar what he would do to solve the problem.

“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” he responded. “There’s no happy ending in sight. It will take a few more generations, but history has more patience than we do.”

Another audience member brought up the subject of the Israeli security barrier, saying it was the worst of solutions. Inbar countered, saying separation now was the best thing for both sides, but he quickly added, “I am the poorest expert on these matters.”

That’s when a woman in the audience asked Inbar a question in which she referred to Israel as “your country.”

After 30 minutes of showing his own left-of-center bona fides, Inbar had had enough.

“If you cannot even say the name of my country,” he said to the woman, “then I don’t even exist. You can hate Israel if you want, but you have to be able to say it. Any other questions?”

The woman responded, muttering “Israel. Israel.”

Inbar quickly apologized and then tried to answer her question. After fielding a few more inquiries about the state of Israeli theater, Inbar called it a night.

“Murder” by Hanoch Levin plays at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 13 and 14, at the Phoenix Theater, 414 Mason St., S.F. Tickets: $10-20. Information: (415) 820-1460.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.