The King of Hearts Is Off Again Tells Survival Story of Jewish Woman in WWII

Piotr Borowski, a student and collaborator of Jerzy Grotowski and co-founder of Gardzienice Theatre, has created a stage adaptation of “Chasing the King of Hearts” by Hannah Kroll. The book is a 2007 bestseller of spiritual survival in the fateless universe of the Holocaust. Borowski’s play, “The King of Hearts is Off Again,” is a memory piece with physical theater that has been presented in California and the Midwest. La MaMa will present the Kulture+ production of this play, acted by Studium Teatralne, for its East Coast debut November 26 to 30, 2014. The piece will be performed by actors from Warsaw, where it was developed.

The play is the real-life story of a Jewish woman, Izolda Regenberg, who set out to save her husband from the Warsaw Ghetto and Auschwitz by disguising herself and living as an Aryan. She succeeded. The story of their survival-through bribery, terror, rapes, escapes from death camps, prostitution and more-is staged with four actors playing 22 parts. Facing unimaginable situations, love becomes Izolda’s sole means of survival as her own identity becomes obsolete. Her epic journey between 1943 and 1968 is told through a patchwork of scenes, with compact dialogue that is translated in supertitles. The production employs dance-like movement that is often tempestuous, ritualistic, and so expressive that the supertitles often seem superfluous.

Martina Rampulla and Gianna Benvenuto. Photo by Kazik Rolbieck.

The title comes from Izolda’s fortune-telling friend, who laid out cards showing the king of hearts (her husband), the six of hearts (a trip) and the three of spades (news). “See, what are you worried about,” asked the friend. Like all questions in the story, there is no sane answer because this is the Nazi occupation and insanity reigns.

Hannah Krall, a journalist turned novelist, was a friend of the real Izolda Regensberg, who died in 2009. Izolda’s story is true; she was a secular Jew who died her hair blonde and, with the help of Polish friends, spent the war trying to rescue family members from the Warsaw ghetto and Nazi death camps.

Magda Czarny. Photo by Pawel Wilewski.

Krall’s own story is harrowing in itself: she survived the war by being hidden by Christians. Her Holocaust books have a devastating charm that lulls you into feeling you are reading a work of fiction, then they slyly slam you back to reality with pictures and documentation that verify the stories are absolutely true. The New York Times (Elena Lappin), reviewing her “The Woman From Hamburg” (2005), wrote, “Krall’s distinctive style could be called Holocaust gonzo journalism. She reports the basic facts but adds a novelistic twist, weaving her interviews into elegant, multilayered narratives.”

“The King of Hearts is Off Again” is structured as a memory play, with the aged Izolda looking back on her life as scenes from her past are re-enacted. We know from the beginning that Izolda not only survived but also found her husband. The play opens with its heroine in her final years, wrestling with survivor guilt and her husband’s senility, searching for a way to pass on her story. She knows no Hebrew and her Israeli grandchildren don’t speak Polish or Yiddish.

Poland’s contemporary emptiness of Jews is suggested with the play’s use of an empty stage, minimal props and a small number of actors. Amid this, the actors deploy an inventive arsenal of extreme and precise physical performance techniques. Music is based on the motifs of John Zorn. “Zorn’s music is old and contemporary, light and deep at the same time,” says Borowski. “As Poland was, for centuries, home to the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world, I wanted the musical element to express this vast span of time. Consequently, numerous musical motifs are frequently repeated and intermixed with other melodies, rhythms and chants.” The painted wooden ceiling of a prewar synagogue is reproduced on the stage floor, with the actors stepping on it and symbolically ruining it.

Magda Czarny and Danny Kearns. Photo by Pawel Wilewski.

Mrs. Regensberg’s story also encompasses the Polish deportation of most of its remaining Jews in 1968.

The New York debut at La MaMa will be performed by Gianna Benvenuto, Waldemar Chacholski, Magdalena Anna Czarny and Daniel Kearns.

The play has been performed in the U.S. at Odyssey Theatre Los Angeles, the San Francisco International Arts Festival and the Balch Street Theatre (former Akron Jewish Center) in Akron, OH.

Director Piotr Borowski was an actor and musician in Poland’s noted experimental theater Gardzienice in the 70’s and 80’s. In 1975, he was a member of Jerzy Grotowski’s “Laboratorium” Theatre and from 1985 to 1993, was active in Grotowski’s Workcenter in Pontedera, working on Grotowski’s last project, called “Performer.” He founded an independent company in Warsaw in 1995 which was incorporated as Studium Teatralne (Studio Theatre Association) in 1997. There he has created ten theatrical works, two of which are based on writings by Hannah Krall. He has also directed documentary films, given acting workshops around the world, and gathered and preserved priceless documentary material in the borderland regions of Eastern Poland, including recordings of old songs, stories and customs.

Waldemar Chacholski as Izolda’s husband. Photo by Pawel Wilewski.

Writing on the play’s production in LA at Odyssey Theater, Jason Rohrer (Stage and Cinema) reported that “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.”

Studium Teatralne’s tour is supported by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland

For more detailed background on the play and Studium Teatralne, please see:

The Sunday, November 30 performance will be followed by a free screening of the film, “Song is Over,” directed by Piotr Borowski, about the painful loss of the tradition of folk singing in the houses and fields of the Bialystok region, in an area between great forests of Augustow and Knyszyn on the northeastern border of Poland.

La MaMa will present the Kulture+ production of Studium Teatralne’s “The King of Hearts Is Off Again” for one week only, November 26 to 30, 2014, at La MaMa E.T.C.’s First Floor Theater, 74A E. 4th St, NYC. Performances will be Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 PM and Sunday at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $18 general admission and $13 for seniors and students. The box office is 212-475-7710 and