Los Angeles Theater Review and Commentary: THE KING OF HEARTS IS OFF AGAIN (Odyssey Theatre)

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by Jason Rohrer on October 8, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

OFF AND ON

Once again, I talk to a troupe of foreign artists, and once again, apart from the art, there’s an utter lack of coherent understanding between their world and mine.  It’s especially funny since so many Americans claim to believe that we’re the least sophisticated and least cross-culturally educated of the industrialized nations.  While it is difficult to applaud the intellectuality of a nation whose conservative political candidate openly advocates removing public support from the arts, “educated” remains a relative concept.  I instinctively believe that most First World nations besides ours have well-funded arts councils that foster cultural programs for the good of the populace; and what do artists from those nations believe of us?

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesFollowing the U.S. premiere of his Polish company’s adaptation of a Hanna Krall novel, director Piotr Borowski reported sadly that his theater was not state-sponsored; and he said this, despite the statement in the program that the Polish Ministry of Culture and the Polish Consulate had sponsored his visit to America.  No, he said, so far from being funded by the state, his theater (Stadium Teatralne) unfortunately had to apply to the Ministry of Culture for grants, one by one.  At first I assumed that the disconnect in his reportage was attributable to language translation issues.  Later, however, one of his actors told me that the theater didn’t get much money from the Ministry; it’s not so easy, he said, clearly trying to impress upon me my misunderstanding of his hardscrabble existence.  Most of their income, he said, came from the city of Warsaw.  Warsaw has 21 state-sponsored theaters, he said, and we’re not one of them; those theaters kowtow to the government and have to rush to put up productions in a couple of months, second-rate stuff at best since a real show with important aspirations can take years to develop.  I pointed out that the price his company had to pay for independence was not zero money from the government but less money.  I explained that there’s not much of a parallel arts-funding superstructure in America or in Los Angeles; that there are private donors, NEA grants, a little bit here and there, but that the vast majority of the theater in America is mounted essentially on faith and for free.  This brilliant young actor then waved his hand, poo-pooing the hundreds of producing theaters in this particular town with the word “amateur.”

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesGranted, artists everywhere have always seen themselves by-and-large as underappreciated angels gracing an ignorant Earth.  The squabbles among them down the ages have been no less intense, though a great deal less violent, than those of the philosophers who used to count the number of angels on the heads of pins.  The Jesus complex is in part a necessity, for the work required of an artist is enormously demanding, spiritually and existentially.  And Stadium Teatralne seems to be fighting the good fight: one of Mr. Borowski’s incentives to adapt The King of Hearts Is Off Again was the fact that as an educated, worldly Pole, he still lived 48 years before realizing that its real-life heroine, Izolda Regensberg, came from his home town.  The ignorance of many modern Poles to their country’s treatment of Jews, and the lack of materials from which to teach them of that history, moved the director to put up a show.  Mrs. Regensberg, whose astounding odyssey of sacrifice helped her husband survive a series of Nazi camps and who insisted that Ms. Krall make her the subject of a 2006 novel, also struck Mr. Borowski as an ideal subject for his aesthetic, a marriage of his own passions with the trappings of Brecht and Grotowski.

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesThe cultural devastation of World War Two are still, after all those movies and European trips, nearly impossible for Americans to conceive.  We are reduced to numbers: today there are about 30,000 Jews in Poland, as opposed to 300,000 in the capital alone before 1939; Mrs. Regensberg’s story also encompasses the even less excusable Polish deportation of most of its remaining Jews in 1968.  As portrayed by Gianna Benvenuto and Martina Rapulla, a more humanizing example of Jewry would be difficult to imagine.  Certainly it seems so sitting on L.A.’s West Side in an audience largely Jewish.  However, Stadium Teatralne has an uphill climb if it wants to convince the Poles.  During a recent Warsaw performance, during the scene when a disguised Izolda recites a Christian catechism to escape a trip to Auschwitz, several Poles got up and left the audience.  They found it incredible, and at least a little distasteful, that a Jew would pray to a god not her own.

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesSo much for one sort of context.  The show itself stands as a good excuse for Americans to see what the little theaters are doing in other countries.  While this show’s not a pure example of anybody’s legacy but Mr. Borowski’s, he did work for seven years with the legendary Jerzy Grotowski, and so this is the closest most Angelenos are going to get to the realization and staging of late Grotowskian aesthetics.  The most famous and influential of Grotowski’s theatrical experiments eventually enervated and disgusted their instigator, and it’s an inescapable fact that his final years in “laboratory” were composed almost exclusively of hermetically sealed, for-actors-only workshops with little or no practical application.  But many of his principles remain sound: a search of the universally applicable gesture; a view of art as a foundation of social conscience; and especially an investment in the actor as the central theatrical tool.  Anyone who’s ever tried to emulate the physical training regimen of Grotowskian actors can attest to its demands and rewards.

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesWatching this play, though, one may receive the impression (specifically from Mr. Borowski’s use of his performers’ impressive physicality) that a dependency upon even admirable conventions is still essentially an addiction.  When the narrator (Piotr Aleksandrowicz in one of many roles) draws arbitrary chalk outlines on the floor (a prison cell, a public toilet), he smiles, dancing balletically from one side of the stage to another; and why is he so joyfully eager to tell this horrifying story of human cruelty and denigration?  Unanswered, the question dissolves into many others.  Perhaps the narrator shares his heroine’s sense of ecstatic mission.  Indeed, a more persuasive explanation exists for Ms. Rampulla’s Izolda to move with passionate athleticism: perhaps in reaction to the overwhelming holocaust around her, Izolda has donned blinders to focus on a less impossible but still outrageously daunting reality.  Her near-constant and quite literal leaps and bounds may be interpreted as a thrill at the joy of life, a declaration that one more minute’s hope is reason to celebrate.

Jason Rohrer’s Stage and Cinema review of The King of Hearts Is Off Again Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los AngelesThe fascination in this story, for someone not raised in the Soviet bloc and who has heard a great many Holocaust tales, is in its idiosyncratic details of what a heroine loses in victory.  In keeping her husband alive, Izolda suborns her own personality and sense of proportion, and one wishes that this script, developed by the actors and their director, had kept its own priorities more straight.  The obvious themes are hammered flat – after a rapist calls himself a decent man, it’s unnecessary for the victim to contradict him in soliloquy; Mr. Regensberg’s (Waldemar Chachólski’s) survivor guilt is his only apparent character trait – while the most surprising and important narrative elements are easily lost in the one-note high-energy flow.  Ultimately, the story rather peters out in a swirl of music.  And that music, attributed to nobody but “the themes of John Zorn,” certainly reflects both Grotowskian and Borowskian obsessions with easily recognizable emotional instruction through melody.  But like a lot of easily recognizable things, this lugubrious music elicits contempt after awhile.

That the heightened production smears into melodrama sometimes is not the worst thing for it, and there’s plenty of good reason for those who like adventurous theater to take advantage of Ron Sossi’s presentation of another international show at the Odyssey.  It’s an informative glimpse into a uniquely Central European type of organic, guru-driven small theater company.  The acting is frighteningly committed, the style is refreshing if not entirely persuasive, and even if for no better reason than schadenfreude, it’s nice to see that talented theater artists from other countries can also sometimes fail to produce world-class work.

The King of Hearts Is Off Again
Stadium Teatralne at The Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles
scheduled to end on Sunday, October 14, 2012
for tickets, call (310) 477-2055 extension 2 or visit http://www.OdysseyTheatre.com

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