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Taking American tragedy to Bulgaria: Unique theater collaboration develops in Charleston

PURE Theatre's Rodney Lee Rogers' play "The Tragedian" will be performed in Bulgaria March 27. Rogers is the South Carolina Arts Commission 2011 Playwriting Fellow. (Photo of Rogers by Rod Pasibe.) From the Charleston Post and Courier Article by Adam Parker

The unlikely drama duo is doing it again, this time in Bulgaria. The first time actor-playwright Rodney Lee Rogers and Bulgarian director Peter Karapetkov presented “The Tragedian” was in 2008 as part of Pure Theatre’s lineup. Rogers wrote the one-man play and starred in it. Karapetkov staged it. The play, about the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, was performed at Circular Congregational Church where its Shakespeare-laden text, innovative staging and compelling portrayal were much appreciated by audiences. Rogers’ research turned up lots of useful and interesting information about the Booth family, which was America’s premier family of the stage back in the 19th century. Father Junius Brutus Booth was an English actor of repute whose stiffer, declarative style was appropriate for his time. Edwin loosened things up and was esteemed for his naturalistic portrayals, and especially for his Hamlet, a role he performed hundreds of times. Rogers taps into all this, and into the inherent dramatic conflict that was part and parcel of the life of a great actor whose brother happened to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. So just how exactly did Booth manage to bring together a local playwright and a Bulgarian theater maestro in Charleston? Karapetkov is a man with a history. He got his start as a theater actor in Plovdiv, attending the Bulgarian Theater Academy, then joined a small provincial theater company during the Perestroika years when Soviet communism was cooling down a bit and giving the economy a little elbow room. It was during those years that Karapetkov met set designer Petar Mitlev and actor Stefan Popov, both of whom are collaborating on the new production of “The Tragedian.” In 1989, after the bloody Tblisi Massacre in Georgia, Karapetkov criticized Soviet communism at an underground meeting, and the KGB arrested him. He soon escaped to Vienna, found his way to a refugee camp then came to the U.S., where he reinvented himself. He enrolled at Carnegie Mellon, got a second MFA degree and became an itinerant theater professor. His American wife, Hollynd Karapetkova, settled into academia but decided she wanted to become a doctor, so the couple, with their child K.J., moved to the Charleston area in 2005, encouraged by Holly’s parents, who lived on Seabrook Island. Once settled into their West Ashley home, Karapetkov naturally started exploring the theater scene in town. “I called Pure,” he said. “It was the only theater making sense from where I’m coming from.” It was innovative, serious, small-scale and eager to take risks. He was invited to direct a couple of productions, including “The Tragedian.” Holly, meanwhile, changed her mind about medical school and returned to academia. She is currently chairwoman of the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. The couple spends summers in Bulgaria exploring mythology and theatrical traditions with students. Holly, who is on sabbatical leave from Marymount, is translating “The Tragedian” into Bulgarian (along with another play to be produced in Australia). Rogers’ play will be mounted by the Plovdiv Drama Theatre on March 27. It will star Popov as Edwin Booth. Rogers will travel to Bulgaria to see the play, which could become part of Plovdiv’s repertoire. He and his collaborators hope to present both the Bulgarian and English versions in Charleston during the 2016 Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Rogers said. For the Bulgarian production, Mitlev said he’s designing a modular set that can be easily transformed into a cart, pieces of furniture and more. The cultural exchange is likely to be well received in Bulgaria, where theater is taken seriously. It receives state support and attracts a large segment of the population. One in seven go to the theater regularly, Karapetkov said. Rogers said “The Tragedian,” with its plethora of Shakespeare and themes of endurance and change, identity, conflict and second chances, leaves plenty of room for interpretation. “It’s so rich, directors can decide what theme or approach (to take),” he said. It’s also a play that’s very much about plays and acting and how the theater can provide a refuge from external cataclysm, Rogers said. The character, Edwin Booth, keeps reviving his version of “Hamlet,” even as his own life changes in dramatic ways because of the Civil War. “Life becomes so unbearable, the actor starts hiding in the theater,” in that realm of imagination, emotion and character-building, Karapetkov said. This unlikely collaboration between the American playwright and the Bulgarian theater director almost certainly will continue, generating projects in both countries and providing audiences with much food for thought. “It’s good for us as a company,” Rogers said. “I hope there is a lot more to come.”