Review of “The Stag King”, a performance of the State Puppet Theatre – Sliven

The Stag King – three hundred years since the birth of Carlo Gozzi
Alexander Hristov

Production team
Directed by Biserka Kolevska
Set designer Svila Velichkova
Masks and costumes Mihail Shishkov
Participants: Lyubomir Zhelev, Georgi Yanev

Carlo Gozzi was among the most serious reformers of Italian theater in the 18th century. His plays have an innovative look and a universal view of the world. His texts are based on the traditional comedia del arte of his homeland, but also borrow plots from the magical folk tale. It retains the characteristics of improvisation and at the same time builds on the level at which the plot develops. Thus Gozzi managed to bring Italian drama into harmony with the contemporary cultural processes of enlightened Europe.

In the past 2020, exactly three centuries have passed since the birth of the author. On this occasion, the emblematic play of the Italian “The Stag King” was staged in the state puppet theater of the city of Sliven.

The story in it interprets a plot from the realm of a magical fairy tale and at the same time tells about ordinary human emotions and longings. Magical transformations of humans into animals and of animals into humans occur. Objects in royal palaces come to life, and a king and his first minister swap bodies and souls. As well as many more effective and spectacular moments, but the author’s emphasis is on love, the struggle between good and evil, the difference between the apparent and the real.

In her version of the play, Biserka Kolevska relies on these initial principles. She says that she sees in Gozzi’s text “a very colorful palette of events and characters”[1].

The show is really diverse. Its qualities are developed to an optimum degree in almost every one of its components.

The director of the production has chosen the interesting decision of presenting all eleven roles of the play through only two actors. It’s skilful, controlled and polished, there’s no sense of overstuffed imagery or understatement in the character system. A feeling of special elevation in the scenes, density of the action and dynamics of the game was created. Actors keep moving around the stage, entering and exiting the playing space, inventing new and new actions so as not to remain static. Even in the brief moments when they are stuck in one place, they still find a way out of that situation. Then they gesture excitedly, turn to the audience, demonstrate how they gather energy from the depths of their souls and then how they finally explode.

The actors themselves make the performance so effective. They manage to show their own qualities beyond the directorial intervention. Lyubomir Zhelev and Georgi Yanev demonstrate their ability to quickly adapt to new situations. They do not waste unnecessary time in which to recreate the various characters. They incarnate into one image, then cease to be it, then become something third and completely different from the previous two. Then they flow into their previous roles and immediately step into their shoes as if they had never stepped out of them. It’s impressive how with each such change, they redo their voices and sound like completely different people. Their speech is very clear, they have correct diction, which further increases the quality of their stage presence.

The scenographic approach is also interesting. Like the actors, the scenery in the performance is also not static in the different scenes. It is the same everywhere, but it deforms and fulfills different roles. It is made of paper material. This allows for its adaptive variability. It is very easy in this way, with very little change in the means of expression, for the action to pass from interior to exterior, or for the actors to overcome their impeding circumstances. There is no need for stagehands to come in and out during a blackout to bring props in and out. On the play space is everything the artistic team needs. There are columns from a royal palace, which later become forest trees, and then transform into a scroll, letters and securities. The game here is on many levels, relying mostly on the imagination of its viewers.

The music is in harmony with the performance. The songs are playful and fun, enhancing the spectacular moments in the performance. They contribute to the elevated atmosphere. The musical scores are so strongly embedded in the event that the actors in a large part of their stage presence begin with a chorus. It’s a double-edged sword, as while it adds to the spectacular look of the show, at one point it weighs it down. It’s hard to understand why the characters have to sing all of a sudden. What is the purpose of this trick? Is it an idea with which the actors make fun of their characters? This is probably how features of the rich biography of the characters come to the fore. To emphasize that despite the magical abilities and aristocratic origin of the persons, they could also possess negative qualities in their behavior. Perhaps. It looks like something like that, even I myself would like it to be like that, but it is unlikely that the audience of the show would come to such conclusions on their own.

Masks and costumes provoke many questions in their wake. They are big and bulky, but they are made of light and fine material. So they don’t interfere with acting. However, their size is serious enough to make it difficult for the interpreters of the roles, forcing them to outdo themselves at every moment. Zhelev and Yanev are obliged to judge with what pitch and what timbre they pronounce their words. Otherwise, there is a great risk that their lines will get lost somewhere in the inner space of the bulky covering of their faces and will not reach the audience.

However, this is only one part of the case study. When we talk about a text based on comedia del arte, the presence of the mask in its stage realization is of great importance. Of course, Gozzi’s play is not entirely based on this genre of traditional Italian theater, but he takes characters from there verbatim with all the clichés of their behavioral characteristics. More specifically, in this case, these are the images of Pantalone, Brigella, Smeraldina and Truffaldino. All four are present in Biserka Kolevska’s production. The author of this component of the show – Elena Tsonkova, made a non-standard decision and chose to portray the characters in a not completely traditional way.
Pantalone is the only actor who comes close to his original image. He is generally dressed in a red suit, has yellow house slippers on his feet, and has a natural long moustache, beard and nose. His mask is also red and covers half of his face. In addition, there is also a long blue cloak. In Kolevska’s performance, these things are preserved almost to the end. The suit is red from the collar to the edges of the trousers, the cloak is also blue. Above the mouth, however, it is not covered, and the slippers have a red and blue color scheme – not yellow.

Brigella and Smeraldina are on the other side of this axis. They have nothing to do with the appearance of their prototypes. In his original, he has an outfit completely in white: blouse, trousers, cloak and hat[2], while Tsonkova has made a costume with a predominant element of purple. The situation with the female image in the couple is almost the same. In the traditional comedia del arte, she appears in a ragged and patched dress[3], heavy make-up and a hat. The performance of the puppet theater in Sliven shows her in a long purple dress that has no patches. The only thing that brings her closer to the native image is the pronounced heavy make-up on the mask imitating her face.

Truffaldino stands somewhere in the middle in this case study. Traditionally, he has colorful clothes, a small hat, has a rabbit tail attached, wears a black mask and a belt around his waist in which he has placed a club. As an image in the performance of Biserka Kolevska, he is depicted wearing a patterned suit and wearing a hat. The similarities stop there. The clothes lack a belt that connects the top and bottom. In this way, the lean body of the actor remains clearly expressed, contrasting with the loose clothes. Takes on an appearance that resembles a clown character. Meanwhile, he does not have a club, but carries with him a butterfly net. The hat is also not in tune with its original. She is not small, but too big. So much so that its fringes fluttered with every movement, falling down Truffaldino’s head and covering his ears.

In the end, I want to note one more important thing. I did not watch this performance live, but on a special recording that was provided to me. In a normal situation, I probably shouldn’t pay special attention to this. However, the past year has shown us that it is high time that quality filming of theatrical performances should become an official policy of the stage institutes. Of course, first of all we have to get out of the framework of, to put it mildly, pretentious reasoning that the recordings in question will replace the live contact of the audience with the aesthetic elements of the production.

Apparently, they came to this conclusion in the state puppet theater of the city of Sliven. The recording of the production of The Stag King has its own audiovisual qualities. It differs seriously from the usual filming of theatrical performances in our country. The camera is not centered in a certain point of the hall, from which the actions of the actors on the stage are generally sealed. On the contrary. You can see that there is thought in the cinematography. There are close and distant shots, you can see how the gaze moves closer and further away from what is happening in the game space.

This part of the creative project could become even richer. The recording of the performance can take on a professional appearance if the viewpoints are expanded. The lounge of the theater has enough space to build a three-camera news station. Actors can be fitted with small brooch-type microphones that would not hinder their movement around the stage. Such equipment is not expensive, nor does the installation process require excessive time and effort. The final product will become a valuable archive for the theater. And not only this. Such an action can be more than good advertising for the Bulgarian theater when such a recording is sent for screening at an international festival.

I think this is a good basis for something that should become an endeavor and not remain a one-off act.



[2] Sometimes there are also green stripes sewn to the suit

[3] Unlike the other characters, Smeraldine’s dress does not have a specific color

Translation is funded by National Culture Fund.