The Tempestuous Bulgarian National Theatre Hits Town
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Research the fields of physical theater and live art, go around the world in search of contemporary cutting-edge theater companies, check out the most acclaimed shows at international festivals like Edinburgh Festival Fringe or the European Theatre Convention and you’ll find the evidence everywhere: Eastern Europe is home to some of the most exciting theater being performed today. It is remarkable that Eastern European theater has flourished in a period of such political and social upheaval, yet it seems the crisis of post-communism has actually fueled a creative response that’s unparalleled elsewhere. Perhaps there’s something in the rubble of social collapse, or in the nihilism that sometimes ensues, which sets free the artist from restrictive social constraints. It’s certain that diminished federal funding and expanded creative freedom have led to radical results in the theaters of the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria, to name a few.
Half a world away in Santa Barbara, where the political climate is decidedly balmier, creative outpourings also tend toward the temperate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate artistic intensity — in fact, we’re often aching for a little stormy weather. Enter John Blondell, artistic director of Lit Moon Theatre Company’s World Shakespeare Festival and a man who has done his research. In the theater festivals of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Gdansk, Poland, Blondell discovered companies and directors who can take traditional material and transform it into radically modern and arresting work. One of the most prestigious and well-established of these groups is the Bulgarian National Theatre (BNT) — a company with a continuous 100-year history. Housed at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre in Sofia, BNT is the oldest and most authoritative theater company in a country where theatrical creativity has long been a vehicle for social commentary and creative expression.
When Blondell first saw the radical, all-male, rock ’n’ roll-infused production of Romeo and Juliet that BNT will bring to Santa Barbara next week, it was actually being performed by a different company under the direction of a young Bulgarian, Lilia Abadjieva, resident director at BNT. “I’d never seen anything like it,” Blondell said, describing the play as a highly crafted physical work that showcases the choreographic virtuosity of its director. “I was sucked right in during the first 60 seconds.” As a director himself, Blondell admired Abadjieva’s use of physical movement as a sophisticated way of showing the text in a new light. It was precisely the kind of dynamic, innovative work he wanted to bring stateside. In commissioning the work for this year’s festival in Santa Barbara, Blondell extended the first-ever invitation for BNT to perform in the United States.
Abadjieva holds a master’s degree in theater direction from the National Academy of Theatre and Film Arts in Sofia. For more than a decade, she has been directing film and theater across Eastern and Central Europe, earning both notoriety and acclaim for her avant-garde, post-modern renditions of classics — often Shakespearean tragedies. Some have called her plays satires or parodies of Shakespeare; her work is popular, unconventional, and highly controversial. Despite this reputation, or possibly because of it, she recently received an award from the Ministry of Culture of Bulgaria for the development and dissemination of Bulgarian culture. Her BNT production of Othello last year won the Union of Bulgarian Artists award for the best play of the season, and she’s the recipient of directorial awards for recent productions in Egypt, Macedonia, and Russia.
On Thursday, October 19, and Friday, October 20, BNT will burst onto the Lobero’s stage with Abadjieva’s radical retelling of Romeo and Juliet. In Europe there’s a storm of contention surrounding this version of the timeless, tragic tale. Critics are calling it pretentious, eccentric, alienating, and apocalyptic. Others say it’s intelligent, cinematic, sensual, and sensitive. Many have remarked on the production’s culminating 15-minute rainstorm that pours down just feet from the front row. It doesn’t sound much like the theatrical weather we’re accustomed to in these parts, and that’s exactly what excited Blondell in the first place. There’s an exhilaration in being buffeted by elements beyond our power and our understanding — an excitement in abandoning the illusion of controlling our environment. So, while the storm that is Bulgarian National Theatre brews on the horizon, Santa Barbarans face a choice: batten down the hatches and resist or get out there and turn your face to the rain.
Writing to me from Sofia last week, the enigmatic Abadjieva told me about how she sees her work in relation to complex cultural and historical contexts, and how she hopes her work will be received. What is Bulgaria like today as a center for the performing arts? In what ways is your work Bulgarian? Bulgaria’s theater has lots of faces — appropriately for the time in which we’re living. It’s characterized by many forms, genres, and generations. There’s very little difference between Bulgarian, Russian, German, and Macedonian actors besides the collision of cultural identities, which is amazing for me. I get excited by every rehearsal — each one is a concentrated life. I have tachycardia every time I first meet with a new actor.
How have you been received in Bulgaria? Abroad? I have always felt like l’enfant terrible of Bulgarian theater. I think of myself as the spoiled child of the critic in our country. I have measured myself for a long time by my performances but not by the awards. Do you feel your work is a parody of Shakespeare or that you satirize Shakespeare? In what ways is your version of Romeo and Juliet a commentary on more traditional versions? There’s no way to presume or to afford to make a “parody of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare is to drama what Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche are to philosophy. What doubt is for philosophy, irony is for theater. My constant melancholy translates automatically into a love of exaggeration and irony. Romeo and Juliet is a play that comes to the conclusion that love is death. Love and death are connected to the highest moment of tension in life — when it goes beyond the moment of everyday existence. Love defeats death; it is stronger than death, yet at the same time it leads to it; it places a person at its border. This is a paradox in existence: Love is a struggle for eternity, but it is also fatally eroding.
Why have you cast only men in this production of Romeo and Juliet? The cosmos of the woman is the man. The man loses the totality of his personality in his relationship with the woman. On the other hand, the woman reaches harmony when she is connected to the man. At that point, she personifies the ideal androgynous shape — something that really exists only in philosophy. For Romeo and Juliet, I had a vision of the theatrical equivalent of this shape: the female parts played by male actors.
Your work is highly physical. Why is that? What do you think it achieves for the drama? I think the only way to present a man who is bare in his pain and suffering is through natural physical activity. Existential dissatisfaction has its equivalent in theater; the theatrical lexicon that expresses such a state is inherently physical. The occupation of theater today is to observe man in his inability to value his own life or to solve the conflict of the world in which we live. One of the main missions of the actor is to clarify the motivation of the character and to find the most effective way to present that conflict.
What’s the most exciting aspect of your work? There’s a point at which the past and the future, the god-like and the diabolical, the tragic and the comic, reality and imagination, high and low are no longer understood as opposite categories. That’s the most exciting part of my work.
How would you like audiences to approach your work? I think theater in these post-post-modern times has to be personal, insolent, and private at the same time. I think the only redemption in doing theater is in transforming one’s life — using it as an instrument to measure truth. This kind of dedication from the performers on one side attracts the audience from the other side and makes the act of theater amazing and exciting for both sides.