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Europe in Love: The King of Hearts Is Off Again and The Belle of Belfast

Daniel Blinkoff and Sarah Gise in The Belle of Belfast

Betsy NewmanDaniel Blinkoff and Sarah Gise in The Belle of Belfast

Izolda really loved her husband. No, I mean she really loved him. The way young Albert Narracott of Devon loved his equine in War Horse. She fell in love with him in the Warsaw Ghetto. They were both Jewish. And she loved him unwaveringly, operatically, without a thought of expedience or personal convenience.

In much the way Albert joined the British army (despite being under age) to seek his horse on the World War I battlefields of France, Izolda traversed Nazi-occupied Poland and Austria, also in disguise (as an Aryan), to seek her husband in Auschwitz and Mauthausen. She was found out, subjected to forced labor. She was raped. Miraculously, both survived and lived out their post-war years in Vienna. Even after they separated (he moved out after their two daughters left, she moved to Israel), she later returned to Vienna to nurse him through his dotage.

This is the love-story essence of Hanna Krall's novel, adapted to the stage by director Piotr Borowski and the actors of his Polish theater, Studium Teatralne Ensemble, in The King of Hearts Is Off Again. They are presenting their production (in Polish, with English subtitles) at the Odyssey Theatre through Oct. 14.

Hanna Krall was Izolda's best friend. At a post-performance discussion, Borowski said Izolda had died in 2009. Izolda is played by two actors. In the midst of her romantic pursuit, she's played by the vivacious Martina Rampulla. In later years, reflecting back on her epic, she's played by Gianna Benvenuto.

Near the play's start, Benvenuto's Izolda wonders how to tell the story, and why. Telling it in Polish seems off, since it's a Jewish story, yet her own granddaughters don't speak Yiddish or even Hebrew. The Jewish population of Poland was decimated during the war. That a Polish company should be tackling it reflects the attempts by Polish arts to grapple with a horror that was buried for decades — something the Germans dealt with years ago, perhaps because their culpability was so damnably obvious.

It would be a mistake, however, to equate their visit to Los Angeles, to the Odyssey Theatre's largely Jewish audience, entirely as a form of artistic catharsis. At that post-play discussion, soft-spoken Borowski confessed that the primary motive of the company's visit was to get the story made into a movie.

My heart sank a little on hearing this. I guess wooing the likes of Spielberg is their God-given right, but still. Don't they make movies in Poland? Don't we look to the Poles, and to Polish theater, even Polish cinema, to reboot our own corrupted artistic impulses? Wasn't their spiritual leader, Jerzy Grotowski, the guy who wrote Towards a Poor Theatre, the Gandhi of European theater, spokesman for the purity of motive when one stands on a stage? Borowski studied with him in Italy for seven years.

"Like Grotowski, I ask questions about the meaning of what I am doing, about its techniques, about my needs and the ethics of it all," Borowski says. "They're the same questions Grotowski asked, only the time is different, because my time is the present."

Yep. Borowski mentioned the crappy funding for his 17-year-old theater in Poland. So how are they so different from us? How many plays are put on here with the aim of getting a lucrative movie deal? Is a life in the theater a living anymore? Anywhere?

Borowski, with his kind eyes and gentle demeanor, looked tired, as one does after or even during a life in the theater. Anywhere.

He directs a lovely performance set on a barren stage except for some chairs and a wooden table. Marta Biaoborska's and Krzysztof Olszowiec's scenic backdrop is a golden tapestry containing Hebrew text. Waldemar Chachólski (who plays multiple roles) is a kind of Polish Joel Grey, a slender man moving with all the grace and authority of a ballet dancer. With a flourish bordering on the ostentatious, he strikes lines across the stage floor with a piece of chalk, delineating Vienna from Warsaw, or a Polish prison cell from a Jewish one. Rampulla's young Izolda bolts around the stage like a gazelle. This is thrilling physical theater, the cast (the fourth actor is Piotr Aleksandrowicz) accompanied by music almost entirely based on the motifs of John Zorn, from solemn strains of an accordion to a calypso. The music sets the tone for the scenes, which spiral back and forth in time. The work is beautiful.

This is the story of having a lucid purpose in life — freedom to fight for and persecution to rail against. Without the likes of Nazis to segregate us into confines and quarters, purpose can go adrift. After all Izolda had done, she and her husband did separate when they finally had the freedom to live in Vienna together, without Nazis. Paradoxically, free from external persecution, we have the liberty and the luxury to pursue happiness but also to focus on the ennui of life passing, of regrets accruing, of a life in the theater that doesn't pay much even when telling heroic stories of people with a lucid purpose.

The world premiere of Nate Rufus Edelman's The Belle of Belfast, which opened over the weekend at Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A. in Atwater Village, is also an intense forbidden-love story, set in troubled times — war-plagued 1985 Belfast.

The eponymous belle is one Anne Malloy (Sarah Gise), an energetic and profane beauty who was orphaned when an IRA bomb struck — collateral damage. She's now being reared by her dotty aunt (Carol Locatell), who badgers the local priest, Father Ben (Daniel Blinkoff), with "confessions" that don't really add up to a sin. It's quite amusing, really, especially when she refuses to leave despite Father Ben's insistence that she do so.

Meanwhile, Anne is a raw nerve with a secret — and then not-so-secret — crush on Father Ben. With little better to do, or so she believes, she shags a local guy, who's the romantic object of her best friend, Clara Murphy (Caitlin Gallogly).

There's a gritty and slightly grotesque ambiance of cursing everything sacred, nicely sustained by director Claudia Weill, which recalls the plays of John Millington Synge. Things get touchy when Anne makes her move on Father Ben, and we enter the territory of infidels.

Father Ben thought his purpose and his devotion to the Church were clear, but they're more confused than he imagined. As in all solid plays, the drama focuses on the choices they make, and don't, and what that says about them. The excellent ensemble includes a terrific performance by Billy Meleady as Father Ben's crusty, alcoholic cohort, Father Dermot.

It's a smart if slightly derivative play that holds its grip with the glue of a good soap opera. What it says about humanity may be slightly obvious, but the production is so carefully crafted, it's all worth the effort.

THE KING OF HEARTS IS OFF AGAIN | Adapted and directed by Piotr Borowski from the novel by Hanna Krall | A production by Studium Teatralne (Poland), presented by the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 14. | (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2 | odysseytheatre.com

THE BELLE OF BELFAST | By Nate Rufus Edelman | Ensemble Studio Theatre/L.A. at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village | In repertory, call for schedule | Through Oct. 28 | (323) 644-1929 | ensemblestudiotheatrela.org

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