A revolutionary performance: Quinnipiac Theater Program dazzles in ‘Bulgaria! Revolt!’
March 7, 2023
Is revolution worth dying for?
Students in Quinnipiac University’s theater program set out to answer this question with its March 3-5 run of “Bulgaria! Revolt!” A musical within a musical within a musical, “Bulgaria! Revolt!” explores the themes of revolution, fascism and national identity.
Bulgarian playwright Elizabeth Dinkova joined the Quinnipiac production of her musical as the director.
“I hope that audiences can take away that political change is a slow and laborious and painful process, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be invested in it,” Dinkova said.
“Bulgaria! Revolt!” is inspired by the 1924 poem “September” by Bulgarian poet Geo Milev, which chronicles a failed peasant and communist uprising against fascist leader Prime Minister Aleksandar Tsankov in September 1923. Because of his revolutionary poem, the government stripped Milev of his citizenship and eventually killed him.
“Because the poem asks questions about whether (revolution is) worth it, to keep trying to change the systems when they’re so powerful, I hope that audiences can feel empowered in the awareness that they themselves, however powerless they may feel, still have the ability to be agents of political change,” Dinkova said.
The musical opened on a solemn night for Milev, played by cinematic production management graduate student Frank Scott, and his wife, Mila Mileva, played by senior psychology major Kristen Daly.
The characters fear that Milev will be taken at any moment by authorities to be questioned about his role in the revolt. While Milev wants to flee Bulgaria, Mileva implores him to stay and stand for the revolution.
This would be Milev’s final night.
In May 1925, Milev was “disappeared” – a term used to describe the government’s secretive killings of revolutionaries and dissidents.
The initial moments of the show were based in truth, until the devil shows up at the couple’s door, summoned by Milev wishing he never wrote “September” in the first place.
The devil is reimagined by first-year biology major Alexa Hartman, who entered the stage donning a trenchcoat and a fedora.
Hartman’s devil tries to tempt Milev to give up his poem in exchange for his life, and Milev faces an existential issue: should he sell his soul and live?
While Milev is ready to sign the devil’s contract, Mileva begs him not to forfeit his “soul” – his art.
The devil proposes a play of her own to convince a wavering Milev to surrender his poem. Suddenly, a full band appears behind the stage and the devil uses her magic to move the characters around like puppets.
The first play casts Milev as Yanko, a Bulgarian farmer and poet, and Mileva as Miroslava, a peasant longing for a better life.
In this portion of the show, we meet the heart and soul of the production, an ensemble of poor Bulgarian laborers, including a priest (David Desrocher), a schoolboy (Tobias Adams), an old witch (Theresa Cusson), a farmer (Rebekah Ferguson), a historian (Skye McCashion) and a milkmaid (Ashley Renee Yanoff.)
The townspeople rehearse an epic number about the history of Bulgaria (“unabridged, motherfuckers,”) marked by its fair share of authoritarian regimes. They are preparing for a festival honoring their fascist ruler, “The Butcher,” who represents the real-life Tsankov. In a hilarious moment, the chorus yells in unison, “What’s the deal with all the fascists?”
Meanwhile, Miroslava finds Yanko’s revolutionary poem, and attempts to rouse him to lead the fight against the Butcher. Yanko does not want to be a revolutionary and delivers a humorous number about wanting to be a “simple Bulgarian farmer,” while he is doomed to be “an angsty, Bulgarian poet.”
The musical then cut to a show-stopping number by the knife-wielding Butcher, played by Stephen Russo, a first-year game design major, who belted about torturing and murdering villagers while they danced around him in shiny outfits. Russo is joined by Hartman, who represents Toma, the Butcher’s assistant, in this “play.”
Russo said the show allowed him to experience playing a villain who is simultaneously deplorable, yet unsure, in his private life.
“Even the most powerful people who think they have it all together, who look like they have it all together, don’t always have it all together,” Russo said. “So definitely be on the lookout, if you need to maybe stage a revolution, find out those insecurities … They’re not as powerful as they think.”
Miroslava convinces the townspeople to plot an overthrow of the Butcher during the festival. At the cry of “Bulgaria! Revolt!” the peasants use all they have– pitchforks, pencils, canes – to try to kill the Butcher.
However, the plan is foiled because the villain had already convinced Yanko to flee to America. Yanko leaves his people behind and renounces his poem and country.
Yanko reads “September” aloud as revolution ends in blood and destruction and his comrades are killed at the hands of the Butcher.
Returning to the Milev residence, Mileva challenges the devil – if she can put on a play, so can Mileva.
The show picks up in Chicago after Yanko’s immigration to America. Yanko meets Sally, Daly’s character in this “play.”
Sally yearns for Bulgaria, her mother’s homeland, while Yanko urges her to stay away from the country. Yanko sings that he wants “to be a normal, American worker” and Sally insists that America is not all it’s cracked up to be. The two fall in love, and Sally lands Yanko a job at the meatpacking plant where she works.
The ensemble of Bulgarian peasants are now immigrant workers, inspired by the actors’ own ancestry. For the production, members of the ensemble learned to say lines in German, Czech, Russian and Italian.
The workers handle gruesome fake meat for the owner of Frank’s Famous Franks, the Butcher’s parallel played by Russo.
The authoritarian Frank threatens the workers to double production or risk their livelihoods.
When the workers drag a body bag into the factory floor, they make a stunningly disturbing discovery. Frank has killed the day shift workers to process them as meat.
Yanko, who has learned from his mistake in Bulgaria, encourages the workers to stage an uprising against Frank. In an epic battle scene that borrows lines from “September,” the group chants, “No lord, no master” and defeats the Butcher.
Finally, Milev tells the devil, he won’t give up his art for his life. In a last appeal, the devil performs a dazzling number about her own revolution against God and her eventual fall from grace, singing that “revolutions always fail.” Hartman sheds her trench coat to reveal a shambled white angel outfit.
Now understanding the devil’s past, Milev embraces her. This scene shows not only the growth of Milev’s character, but also paints the devil herself as misunderstood.
The devil exits the scene, and the story ends with the authorities knocking on Milev’s door.
“Bulgaria! Revolt!” is a feat of artistry in both its stage design and acting. It’s historical, yet darkly humorous. The characters play similar roles across alternate universes showing that tyranny and revolution can happen anywhere, at any time.
Take Mileva/Miroslava/Sally, who all represent Milev/Yanko’s conscience and urge him to do what is right for his community.
“I think Mila’s very confident, she’s very strong,” Daly said. “She loves her husband dearly … and I that that translates to each of my characters in a different way. Miroslava obviously through revolution and Sally as a form of helping Yanko.”
“Bulgaria! Revolt!” challenges viewers to think critically about revolution. It shows that sometimes a just cause is worth a high sacrifice. Sometimes, the peasants might just come out on top.
“Make sure to never underestimate the power of a peasant,” Russo said.