A MARVELOUS POLISH PLAY AT THE ODYSSEY
When a play is so thought-provoking that it makes it impossible to sleep afterwards
without first googling the facts that it presents, it has, in some not so small measure,
served its purpose. When the presentation and individual performances make you want to
jump onto the stage and embrace everyone involved, you know, as one eloquent audience
member put it, that “a small shard of glass has just been embedded in your mind and
each time you turn your head, it will prick you to remind you of this extraordinary
Such is my reaction to the American premiere of “The King Of Hearts Is Off Again”,
currently in a far too short run at the Odyssey Theatre, in conjunction with the
Studium Teatralne from Warsaw, Poland.
The play is performed entirely in Polish, but fear not: Subtitles are provided on a
monitor set above the action and trust me, you will certainly need them. This is a
complicated and extremely fast-moving piece, but worth every moment of your attention,
should you be fortunate enough to attend.
The basic storyline is fairly standard, with a couple of twists: Young jewish couple
living in Warsaw are separated by the German invasion. He is sent first to Auschwitz
and later to a number of other camps. She manages to pass herself off as Polish and
never gives up her convoluted quest to keep her beloved husband alive. NOTE: The Poles
and the Jews apparently considered themselves to be separate nationalities, a strange
phenomenon that persists to this day, according to what we saw and heard last night.
The couple survived and were reunited. They went on to have two daughters, who in turn
bore grandchildren for the couple. none of whom spoke Polish, since they were raised in
Israel. The husband stayed in Vienna after the war; the couple eventually separated
and the wife moved to Israel to be with her children; then when the husband became ill,
late in life, she returned to Vienna and cared for him until his death. She died a few
As you might surmise, this is based upon a true story, from a book by the late Hanna
Krall. When the heroine—and that she was!—realized that she would never be able to
explain this story to her grandchildren thanks to the language barrier, she approached
Krall, already a noted author, and convinced her to write the book. She hoped that
eventually, it would be translated into hebrew for the sake of her progeny.
The twists that I mentioned are the fact that both of these people survived the
holocaust and were reunited, both rarities, but for the director, even more of a twist
was the way in which this woman was driven totally by love of her husband. Another
thoughtful audience member commented on the comparison between that intense love and
how casually marriage is viewed today in much of the world.
The four actors, who between them portray some twenty characters, are fearless,
physical to an extreme degree, and uniformly excellent. The two women, Martina
Rampulla and Gianna Benvenuto, play the heroine at various ages, as well as other roles.
Waldemar Chacholski plays the husband (plus others), while the incredible Piotr
Aleksandrowicz narrates as he draws chalk lines on the black floor to delineate various
locations. His other roles are intense and fright-inducing. We were shocked to
discover at the after party that none of these actors is a trained dancer or gymnast.
The final twist for many of us was the revelation that in 1968, the Polish government
expelled thousands of jewish citizens, giving them travel documents that stated they
were not Poles and would never be allowed back in the country. That little tidbit is
what sent me googling at midnight, since I had never heard about this. If you are
interested in learning more, just enter “Poland, 1968, Jewish” in your search engine
and voila! It’s all there.
At the Q&A following the performance, the brilliant director, Piotr Borowski, who grew
up in Warsaw, told us that when he was young, he had no idea that jewish people had
ever lived in his neighborhood. He said that when he was taught anything about WWII,
no one ever mentioned that included among the six million people who died were some
three million Jews (his figures, not mine). The bizarre information about the
relationship between Poland and its jewish population is not common knowledge over
here, but then, as I told Mr. Borowski privately, we Americans have our own dirty
secrets that he probably knows nothing about.
This remarkable production runs through October 14th at The Odyssey. For reservations,
call (310) 477-2055, Ex.2, or go to www.odysseytheatre.com.
– Kris Malone