Review: The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria

Out of the Forest Theater presents its World War II history play off-Broadway.

David Leopold, Sasha Wilson, Joseph Cullen, Lawrence Boothman, and, Clare Fraenkel star in Out of the Forest Theatre’s The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgariadirected by Hannah Hauer-King for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Bulgaria was once a great empire, the scourge of Constantinople, with territories that stretched deep into modern Greece. That history isn’t given much play in American and British schools. Nor do we in the Anglosphere spend much time contemplating Bulgaria’s role in World War II — a conflict in which we prefer to present ourselves as the protagonists, much to the consternation of one very surly Russian. Britain’s Out of the Forest Theater seeks to complicate our Hollywood view of history in The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgariawhich is now making its New York debut as part of the Brits Off Broadway series at 59E59 Theaters.

Co-written by the company’s founders, Joseph Cullen and Sasha Wilson (who also appear onstage as the King and Queen of Bulgaria), the play gives this story an irreverent, highly musical treatment sure to delight some viewers while gently irritating others. It’s like a collaboration between Monty Python and Bertolt Brecht — an unexpected combo for a Holocaust drama, but an occasionally effective one.

For the average off-Broadway theatergoer, the most interesting thing about Boris III will be his role in saving 50,000 Bulgarian Jews from deportation to Nazi death camps, despite the demands of his ally in Berlin (Boris said he needed them to build roads suitable to transport Panzer tanks to the Eastern front). But why ally with Hitler in the first place? This is where a knowledge of Byzantine-era history comes in handy.

“This land is your land and this land is my land / From Macedonia to the Thracian Grasslands,” the cast sings, acquainting us with the basics of Bulgarian irridentism in the most cheerful way possible (Dessi Stafanova is the music consultant).

We also learn how Metropolitan Stefan (David Leopold) baptized hundreds of Jews to confound the SS, as represented in Sofia by Theodor Dannecker (Sasha Wilson with a severe bun and harsh German accent). The scene gives us the hilarious spectacle of an Orthodox prelate singing the old spiritual “Just a Little Talk With Jesus,” which Leopold performs with all the delicious relish of a late-career Elvis Presley.

Lawrence Boothman and David Leopold appear in Out of the Forest Theatre’s The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgariadirected by Hannah Hauer-King for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Carol Rosegg)

Clare Fraenkel gives an oddly chilly performance as the Jewish musician Anka Lazarov, who appeals directly to the conscience of the King (this is Wilson and Cullen’s greatest narrative liberty). Lawrence Boothman memorably portrays Prime Minister Bogdan Filov as a twitchy, ferret-like paper-pusher. He needles the King toward Germany, despite his appearance as a technocratic functionary, and makes us all think about the power behind the throne.

Cullen is more elusive than Boris, exuding the false sincerity and ill-fitting grandeur of a man who was born into his job. The King clearly takes the role seriously, agonizing over the choice between bad and worse (this is how Filov weasels his way in). He wants to be admired but has neither the ingenuity nor superhuman energy to be truly great. All of it contributes to a portrait of a not particularly remarkable man who oscillates between flashes of intelligence and despair, but always comes off as vaguely ridiculous — very much like Boris’s distant cousin (and Cullen’s King) Charles III.

Hannah Hauer-King directs a production that foregrounds the performances. Helen Stewart’s costumes facilitate instant and clear character transitions (everyone but Cullen plays multiple roles). Sorcha Corcoran’s simple yet versatile set allows the actors to leap from scene to scene in this fast-moving historical dramedy. Will Alder’s lighting beautifully contributes to the storytelling: A diminishing box of light late in the play very much suggests a curtain coming down on Boris and his reign — no spoiler considering the title.

David Leopold, Sasha Wilson, Joseph Cullen, Clare Fraenkel, and Lawrence Boothman appear in Out of the Forest Theatre’s The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgariadirected by Hannah Hauer-King for Brits Off Broadway at 59E59 Theatres.
(© Carol Rosegg)

In their quest to make this history accessible to a modern audience, Wilson and Cullen occasionally stoop to pander. “Welcome various white gentlemen with decision-making power you’ve almost certainly not earned,” the King opens a meeting of his minsters. It’s a throwaway joke that raises far more serious questions: Are Bulgarians white? And if so, were there bureaucrats of color hanging around Sofia in 1941 who might have been more worthy of a ministerial portfolio? Do our American census designations, in fact, have any bearing on the ancient ethnic tensions of the Balkan peninsula? Or is this attempt to graft our racial politics onto a part of the world we little understand an example of our arrogant cultural imperialism? These are complicated questions and, I suspect, not the ones Wilson and Cullen wanted me to be thinking about as I exited onto 59th Street.

Still, in its lighthearted story-theater way, The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria admirably introduces audiences to a history that has been long ignored in the West. As the energy and vitality of Europe shifts to the East, we all ought to make a point of knowing it better.

 
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