A World Untethered

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There are rare moments in the theater, when in the very first seconds of a performance you know the actors are going to take care of you. You can recognize in the clarity of gesture or the strength of presence, a body of training that's going to lead you on a journey.

In Polish theater company, Studium Teatralne's American premiere of The King of Hearts Is Off Again, that moment happens when an actor stoops to the floor to draw a chalk line.

It's a simple action, almost a cliché of avante-garde theater, white chalk on a black floor. But as the actor descends there's a grace and fluidity to the movement. It's almost as if gravity doesn't pull on him in quite the same way. You know in an instant: this is a grounded body that will hold this play together.

It's a good thing because not only is this production in Polish with English subtitles but it's also a wonderfully intricate story in both form and content. The play is based on a book by author Hanna Krall that traces the real life of Izolda R, a Polish Jew who married her beloved husband in the first year of World War II. At its simplest, it's the story of a woman's quest to save her husband.

But what keeps the story from being a familiar cliché, like that chalk line, is how it's told.

That line on the floor delineates both time and place. When the play opens, an aged Izolda is looking back from 2005 on her husband in the 1970's. In the next moment, another actress plays Izolda's younger doppelganger in 1942. The narrative evolves as a constant shifting between these times.

Sounds complicated, right? Don't worry, in performance it's thrilling.

The world is embodied by four actors with little more than a rolling table and two chairs. The actors are in almost constant dance-like motion. There's a frenetic quality to the movement as if the world being portrayed contains more than the story being told. An entire life is being replayed before our eyes but only small segments are being given words. Action and reaction are dislocated - an actor swinging his Gestapo club upstage - is beating the woman downstage.

What makes all this more than a stylistic gimmick is the complexity of the story itself: Izolda, a Jew, transforms her identity to begin passing as a gentile; as her husband is transferred from concentration camp to concentration camp, she finds herself imprisoned, then escaping, then imprisoned again; in her attempt to keep her husband alive, she finds herself sleeping with other men.

Identity, nationality, morality all become untethered.

What's exciting for LA theater is this production by Studium Teatralne is in here, in part, because LA ensemble Ghost Road did a residency with the company in Poland. That's the kind of inspired cultural exchange that benefits both LA audiences and artists.

Go see this show.

The King of Hearts Is Off Again plays this weekend only at the Odyssey Theater in West LA.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 80 minutes without an intermission. In Polish with English Subtitles.

Banner image: Studium Teatralne