Power of love is up against stacked deck in ‘King of Hearts’by dan pine
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Four Polish actors playing 22 characters, no props and a bare stage. That’s how it’s done when the Warsaw-based theater company Studium Teatralne comes to the Bay Area to perform “The King of Hearts Is Off Again.”
The play will be presented at a pair of local theaters Oct. 2-5 as part of the 2013 San Francisco International Arts Festival. “The King of Hearts Is Off Again” is performed in Polish with English supertitles.
This is no “Alice in Wonderland” spinoff. It’s based on Hanna Krall’s novel about Izolda Regenberg, a real-life Jewish woman who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, surviving the war by passing as a Catholic Pole.
Shana Penn, executive director of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and a leader in reviving Jewish life in Poland, says theater has always been a form of cultural resistance and public education in Poland. “Theater in today’s democratic Poland addresses important themes, such as Holocaust history,” she says. “We are fortunate this play is having a Bay Area premiere.”
This is not the first time Studium Teatralne has come to the region. Festival executive director Andrew Wood first saw the company perform in Los Angeles and was so impressed he brought them here two years ago.
The company and its director, Piotr Borowski, are grounded in the experimental style of Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), who believed the actor possessed all that was needed to convey the necessary pity, awe and spectacle on stage. That usually meant no props or sets, no bells or whistles.
“This is a very minimalist show,” Wood says. “The biggest thing they need is a table. They don’t have any set at all. This is the Grotowski ethos: The actor brings forth everything.”
In “King of Hearts,” the four actors revisit some of the darkest hours of the Holocaust. The play follows Regenberg’s harrowing escape from the Ghetto and her determination later to go back in to save her husband.
“What attracted me [to the play] was the power of love and devotion of the main character to her husband,” said director Borowski via email. “That’s what the play is about. We couldn’t have ignored the whole context of World War II during which Polish Jews were sentenced to death. We also talk about the time after the war, and the present, but our main emphasis is to show the power of love and devotion.”
Wood thinks the play typifies Poland’s effort to understand its wartime history, including the fact that so many non-Jewish Poles turned their backs on their Jewish neighbors.
“It’s something the Polish people are coming to terms with,” he says. “For a lot, it’s not easy. They bought an image of themselves of what happened in World War II, that they were the aggrieved party. It’s important that a Polish theater company is doing a play written by a Polish Jew.”
Borowski, who is not Jewish, agrees, noting that in the postwar Communist era, the regime tried to “erase the past,” including the long history of Jews in Poland. But when he looks back now, the director has tried to make sense of his nation’s history.
“I could not easily agree with the simple formula that it was all caused by the Germans, and after the war by the Poles,” he says. “But it was all done by people, and since it was done by people, one cannot sleep peacefully.”
“The King of Hearts Is Off Again,” 8 p.m. Oct. 2-4 at NOHspace, Project Artaud, 2840 Mariposa St., S.F., and Oct. 5 at University Theatre, CSU East Bay, 25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward. $18-$25. http://www.sfiaf.org or
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