Javor Gardev’s Productions in the Bulgarian Repertoire

Valleri Robinson*

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee, directed by Javor Gardev. Ivan Vazov National Theatre of Bulgaria, premiere 11 October 2009.

Chamkoria based on Milen Ruskov, adapted by Javor Gardev and Zachary Baharov, directed by Javor Gardev. Theatre 199 Sofia, premiere 26 October 2017.

You Shouldn’t Have Said So by Salomé Lelouch, directed by Javor Gardev. Lumiere Cinema, premiere 12 February 2023; Varna Summer International Theatre Festival, 04 June 2023.

Fitz Roy by Jordi Galceran, directed by Javor Gardev. Little City Theatre Off the Canal, premiere 15 September 2021.

Productions of Heiner Müller’s Quartet (1998), Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade (2003), and Camus’s Caligula (2008), which toured throughout Europe to great acclaim, established the Bulgarian director Javor Gardev’s international reputation. Often evoking precariousness in an unsettled and always-transitioning world, his characters move through symbolic, shape-shifting environments in search of connection, clarity and possibly even salvation. To varying degrees, his productions evoke the bodily vulnerability as well as psychological barriers and socio-political systems that produce the malaise and threats of violence which imprison the inhabitants.

Gardev has directed more than 50 productions, and thirteen of them remain in repertoire in Bulgaria and abroad. Of the nine productions playing in June in Bulgaria, I had the fortune to attend eight stirring performances: You Shouldn’t Have Said So by Salomé Lelouch; Easter Wine by Konstantin Iliev; The Drunks by Ivan Vyrypaev; Fitz Roy by Jordi Galceran; Chamkoria after Milen Ruskov; The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? by Edward Albee; Homecoming by Harold Pinter; and Festen (The Celebration) adapted by David Eldridge.

Promotional trailer of Festen (The Celebration) adapted by David Eldridge

Unlike the brazen portrayals of intense physical and sexual violence, depravity and instability that characterize his early work, the current repertoire exhibits a more tempered approach to the depiction of human vulnerability, isolation and suffering. While the worlds the characters inhabit continue to be generally hostile and in flux, inertia dominates these disordered landscapes.

Of the works that remain in the repertoire in Sofia, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia is the longest-running production. Continuing at the Ivan Vazov National Theatre of Bulgaria with three members of its original 2009 cast (Mihail Bilalov, Boyka Velkova and Julian Vergov) and including Martin Dimitrov as the son, this Albee-endorsed production seamlessly captures the family’s alienation and deterioration in light of a father’s shocking revelation. The generally subdued and gentle, but troubled Martin Gray (Bilalov) pleads for understanding from his best friend Ross, his wife Stevie, and his son as he tries to maintain some sense of order. This contrasts with Stevie (Velkova), whose punchy, crisp retorts grow with increasing ferocity as she destroys the remains of their settled life. The sleek, wooden interior home of the successful architect, designed by Nikola Toromanov, slowly devolves as the wreckage of their past and Stevie’s rage covers the floor. In the penultimate moment, Stevie bursts forth covered in blood holding the slaughtered goat as Martin falls to his knees in shock and grief. This stunning final image creates a startling, mesmeric effect.

Chamkoria. Actor Zachary Baharov, dir. Javor Gardev. Costume and set design by Svetoslav Kokalov. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev

Many of Gardev’s productions move toward a dominant image crystallizing the critical relations and transformative moments of the key characters. One of the most striking occurs in Chamkoria, which Gardev and actor Zachary Baharov adapted from Ruskov’s vast novel. The play opened in 2017 at Theatre 199 in Sofia and continues to tour throughout the country and internationally. The one-person play, set in Bulgaria in 1928, centers on Bae Slavey (portrayed by Baharov), an omnibus driver who slips in and out of the past as he recounts his life journey. Perpetually working to support his wife and three children, this charming everyman feels trapped by his domestic situation and the bestial political extremism he encounters. Baharov playfully moves across the simple, structural, metal set evoking an early 20th-century omnibus designed by Svetoslav Kokalov, expressing the character’s simplistic outlook and basic survival strategies. The playfulness is often sharply undercut by contrasting gravity as he narrates the charged violence that haunts the economically and politically vulnerable character, who recognizes and feels shame for his own capacity for violence. Bae Slavey longs for freedom—from the drudgery of domestic life, the debts that encumber him and the trappings of the politically volatile State. The character’s transformation occurs when he receives a payoff from a suspected anarchist terrorist he assists and stops to count the money. Gardev and Baharov expand this moment into eternity as Baharov stands downstage slowly, ritualistically counting the 40 bills with an expression of complex alienation. After a long beat, the character weeps, feeling a release of the pressure and weight of his struggle. This rapturous freedom is short-lived, however, as he soon becomes a victim of the terrorist himself.

Festen: Dir. Javor Gardev, costume and set design by Svila Velichkova and Elitsa Rangelova. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev

More hopeful in outlook are the most recent productions in his repertoire: You Shouldn’t Have Said So! and Fitz Roy. Both are contemporary comedies in which the characters navigate the challenges of contemporary life. Lelouch’s burlesque presses into the closure of the public sphere as increasing pressure to conform to social attitudes leaves little space for open debate and opinion formation. Gardev’s production, premiering in 2023, shifts dynamically from scene to scene on a constantly transforming set made up of large, convertible black mobile cases. The production, performed at the Varna Summer International Theatre Festival in June 2023, also shifts tonally throughout, capturing the ridiculousness in the script but layering it with occasional heaviness and surprising tenderness. In this two-hander, Zachary Baharov and Teodora Duhovnikova delight with their dynamism, physical and vocal dexterity and rhythmic precision.

You Shouldn’t Have Said So!: Actor Teodora Duhovnikova, dir. Javor Gardev; costume and set design by Svila Velichkova. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev
Fitz Roy: Dir. Javor Gardev; costume and set design by Svila Velichkova and Vanina Tsandeva. Photo: Stefan N. Shterev

Equally exceptional ensemble performances occur in Gardev’s production of Fitz Roy, centering on four women climbers attempting to be the first all-female team to ascend the mountain. Here, the cliff-side to which they are bound restricts their mobility, but the versatility occurs through the musicality and dynamism of their speech and character relationships, portrayed by Irini Jambonas, Hristina Karaivanova, Anastassia Liutova and Katalyn Stareyshinska. The symbolic, indistinct black mound that constitutes the set, designed by Svila Velichkova and Vanina Tsandeva, resembles a mountainside in shape and texture but represents the unknown, fear of failure, loss and the imminence of death. Moving from light comedy to deadly serious in Gardev’s hands, the production traces the stripping away of lies, competition, and fear with the growth of a strong bond of community and recognition. As in The Drunks, a more raucous, large-scale penetrating production (featuring the enchanting veteran actor Vlado Penev and corresponding ensemble), it is the formation of community that awakens and transforms the characters, giving them a sense of hope and possible future. Both plays continue in rep at the Little City Theatre Off the Canal in Sofia alongside Gardev’s unnerving Homecoming and haunting Festen (The Celebration). 

*Valleri Robinson, author of Russian Culture and Theatrical Performance in America (2011), teaches courses in theatre historiography and 21st-century dramaturgy at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She is currently writing the book, Belorussian Theatre and the 2020 Pro-Democracy Protests: Documenting the Resistance (under contract, Anthem Press). In 2014, Valleri was a Fulbright Scholar working with the Kolyada Theatre in Ekaterinburg, Russia. She is Head of the Department of Theatre and an affiliate faculty member of the Russian, East European, Eurasian Center and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.

Copyright © 2023 Valleri Robinson
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