All hail the ‘King’

The King of Hearts Is Off Again” has already closed after a run at the Odyssey Theatre, but its powerful impact lingers. One is left with a haunting memory of constant, frenetic, often balletic motion, undergirded by frequently dark, dramatic music, which created a pervasive sense of danger and of an impending storm. 

A guest production by the Polish company Studium Teatralne, “The King of Hearts Is Off Again” opened Oct. 5 for only five performances to an enthusiastic, sellout crowd that included actress Carol Lawrence, who played Maria in the original Broadway production of “West Side Story.” 

The play, performed in Polish with English subtitles, is taken from a novel by Polish-Jewish writer Hanna Krall and was adapted for the stage by the head of the Studium, Piotr Borowski, who also helmed the production. Krall tells the life history of her best friend, Izolda R., a Jewish woman from Warsaw, who met her husband at the beginning of World War II. On one level, it is a story of unqualified, selfless love and devotion, as Izolda was obsessed with keeping her husband alive, above all others, in the face of the Nazi threat. About a year after they married, Izolda and her husband were confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which she escaped, had her hair dyed blond, changed her name and began living as a non-Jew. She was helped by a Christian friend, who coached her so that she learned not to walk, talk, laugh or even put her purse on the floor “like a Jew.” The friend also taught her the Hail Mary prayer and gave her a medallion.

Izolda kept close track of her husband, who was transported to Auschwitz, leaving no stone unturned as she scrounged for money to send him one package of food a month. When he was transferred to Mauthausen in Austria, she went to Vienna. Although she, too, was imprisoned on various occasions, it was on such charges as working with the Polish underground (which she was not doing). She continued to successfully conceal her Jewish identity.

She and her husband survived the war, but their families were annihilated. They went back to Poland, where they lived as Christians, baptizing both of their daughters and going to church regularly. Ultimately, however, the police uncovered papers that revealed their true ethnicity. The couple had to file certain forms with a passport office, where “travel documents” were issued.  Those documents negated their Polish citizenship, and they moved to Vienna. That episode spoke volumes about Polish anti-Semitism. 

Although Izolda’s husband left her after their daughters relocated to Israel, and she eventually followed them, Izolda returned to Vienna to care for him during his waning years. 

The script is structured as something of a memory play, with the aged Izolda (Gianna Benvenuto) looking back at her life as scenes from her past are re-enacted. 

Four actors played 20 roles on a stage that was almost bare, and the action went back and forth in time, a device that a few audience members found confusing.

As the play began, actor Waldemar Chachólski drew lines on the stage floor with chalk, an activity he performed periodically during the evening, to indicate various settings. Chachólski was highly impressive in his physicality, leaping and bounding around the stage like a combination ballet dancer-acrobat, as was the graceful Martina Rampulla, who played the younger Izolda. Piotr Aleksandrowicz completed the cast.

This material is largely unknown to Americans, and the physical style in which it was presented is somewhat unusual to mainstream American theatergoers. Many have likened the avant-garde performance technique to that of the late Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, who was particularly concerned with physical precision and discipline on the part of his actors, with ritual and with the relationship between the actor and the audience. He and Borowski worked closely together for seven years in Italy.

During the Q-and-A that followed the performance, Borowski talked about how important it is for him to have the theater openly examine the experience of Polish Jews, before, during and after World War II. The director added that the painted wooden ceiling of a prewar synagogue was reproduced on the floor of the company’s stage in Warsaw for this play.

When asked about the attitude toward Jews in Poland today, he replied that the historic anti-Semitism is no longer prevalent. In response to a question about the number of Jews in Poland, an audience member said there are about 30,000 Jews now living there. 

Such experimental work would seem to ignore commercial considerations, but Borowski admitted that the primary reason for bringing the play to Los Angeles was to get the vehicle made into a film.

The lively discussion continued at the after-party, with a few dissenters debating those who were enthralled by the work they had just seen