Stormy Weather

The Tempestuous Bulgarian National Theatre Hits Town

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

Bulgarian-Puppet-Theatre-As.jpgResearch 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.

theatre1.jpgAbadjieva 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
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
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

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

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
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.


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