Whether artistic works were created over 100 years ago or just several months prior, they are able to maintain their relevance and address political issues that reemerge throughout time.
In “Bulgaria! Revolt!,” a musical created by Elizabeth Dinkova DRA ’17 and Miranda Hall DRA ’17 and composed by Michael Costagliola DRA ’18, themes of political upheaval, idealism and art are constantly in conversation with one another. Contrary to traditional senior thesis projects, which usually involve directing existing plays, “Bulgaria! Revolt!” is an original musical. Dinkova, the director, said she drew inspiration from a poem she had read in middle school by Bulgarian poet Geo Milev entitled “September,” which was written in the 1920s and commemorates a failed peasant uprising against the country’s communist regime. Early 20th century Bulgaria and capitalist America are tied together to question the effectiveness and necessity of revolutions and the role that art plays within them.
The show, which is completely student-driven, is currently the largest production under the School of Drama and boasts a budget comparable to a regional theater show. It is composed of undergraduate and graduate musicians and actors from the School of Drama as well as collaborators from Connecticut College and the University of New Haven.
“The poem ‘September’ ends with these very hopeful lines after chronicling in great, expressionistic and exquisite detail of the failure of this uprising and how stupid, naive and idealistic it was. It ends with this idea that in the future, we’ll tear down the heavens and the earth will become paradise,” Dinkova said. “That poem was written like a hundred years earlier so I think our main issue with the contemporary world is we look around us and we see the same problems, the same injustices, plaguing the world over and over again.”
The play centers on the protagonist Geo Milev, who grapples with whether his poem made a real contribution to the political and activist spheres. It opens the night before a hearing in which he must decide whether he will ask to reinstate his previously revoked his Bulgarian citizenship when the Devil appears as a result of his doubts and offers him an opportunity for the poem to be forgotten altogether. In the second act, the scene transitions to America and Milev’s wife takes over as the narrator.
Hall said the musical mixes fact and fable. As the playwright, she disliked the idea that the work might be limited in its scope if it was a “completely accurate” representation of the past. In response to this, Hall and Dinkova created two fable worlds for the show, one set in Bulgaria and the other in America. In reality, Milev was taken in by Bulgarian officials and secretly assassinated after “September” was published.
“Bulgaria! Revolt!” is the third collaboration between Hall and Dinkova. Hall said that most of their projects fall on the “knife edge” between comedy and violence, adding that the musical might not fit into this exact description but is deeply rooted in comedic tradition. Dinkova added that this was especially relevant considering Bulgaria’s own history with satirical comedy. She said that up until 1989, when Bulgaria’s communist regime dissolved, one of the only ways in which Bulgarians could share their political sentiments was through laughter and allegory.
Costagliola entered the project in May after being assigned to it through the Drama School. He and Dinkova both said that a musical seemed to be the most appropriate way to tell the story, as they felt that music could best convey the sense of energy that drove the narrative. Costagliola said that the narrators engaged in a battle of story telling, often exaggerating to prove their points. He added that music was the perfect vehicle to express that exaggeration and “heightened level of narrative.”
Hall said that she entered the project without deep knowledge of Bulgarian history yet felt that the themes explored within this cultural context could still be applied to a modern audience.
“The Baltimore uprising was happening while I was running the light board for another show my first year. I felt very torn about being here and not in my city,” Hall said. “Suddenly these questions about revolution and what a successful revolution looks like became very personal in a way that they hadn’t been before. This play came out of, even though I’m not Bulgarian, my desire to metabolize those questions and to put them in a framework that is still personal.”
Costagliola said he was inspired by the meters, scale and rhythm of Bulgarian wedding and folk music, which he incorporated into the musical score. He described the music of the first act as “hyper-folk,” imbued with distortion electric guitar and drums to reflect a revolutionary spirit. The “folktronic” style of the second act, he said, was meant to satirize American capitalism.
Hall said that the current political climate, specifically Donald Trump’s election as president, gave the play much more meaning and relevance for those involved.
“We have these revolution check-ins periodically,” Dinkova said. “We started them on the first day of the process where we give everyone the time and the space to ask questions about revolution that they’ve been grappling with to the group and talk about the things that they are seeing in their political climate that are plaguing them.”
As a Bulgarian native and American immigrant, Dinkova said that she sees a tendency in Americans to self-insulate and look inward for answers. She added that there is often a misconception among Americans that the U.S. is the only country that can answer major questions dealing with groundbreaking change. She said that she hopes this play will be a reminder that looking to other cultures in times of political upheaval, and often crisis, is necessary.
The show will run from Dec. 9 to Dec. 15 at the Iseman Theater.