Saturday, May 18, 2024

Boris III

The enigmatic Bulgarian monarch Tsar Boris III is currently appearing onstage at 59E59 in the person of Joseph Cullen as a part of the Brits Off Broadway festival.

Cullen co-wrote the play The Brief Life & Mysterious Death of Boris III, King of Bulgaria together with Sasha Wilson, who plays Boris's wife Giovanna as well as assorted other roles.

Wilson, who is partially of Bulgarian descent, was fascinated by a book on Boris she found on her grandfather's bookshelf. Certainly an intriguing figure, Boris fought for his country on the losing side of World War I, and then aligned Bulgaria with the Axis powers during World War II, but sought to keep his people out of harm as much as he could.

Boris managed to convince the Axis powers to return to Bulgaria (after the war) territories it had lost at the end of World War I. In exchange, the country symbolically declared war on the United Kingdom and the United States, but did not have to send any troops to help Hitler invade the Soviet Union. It appeared to be a win-win situation... until it wasn't.

As the play chronicles, the price of this deal with Hitler was the Law for Protection of the Nation, a piece of anti-Semitic legislation that paved the way for Bulgarian Jews to be exterminated in concentration camps. That's what happened to the Jewish residents in the territories Boris hoped to reclaim for Bulgaria, but for Jews in Bulgaria proper, there was still hope.

Wilson and Cullen's play delves into some of the maneuvers under Boris that led to some 50,000 Bulgarian Jews being saved. The country's prime minister, Bogdan Filov (played by Lawrence Boothman), cooperated with the Nazis, among other things creating a Commissariat for Jewish Affairs that prepared to deport Jews to concentration camps. These plans were frustrated in part by Metropolitan Stefan (played by David Leopold), the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church who was later declared one of the Righteous Among the Nations for his actions to protect Jewish people.

The play gives considerable attention to a Jewish musician named Anka Lazarov (Clare Fraenkel), a sort of Bulgarian Everywoman who represents the plight of ordinary people during Boris's reign. The history of this era in the Balkans, much like Boris's death, remains shrouded in unknowns and hypotheticals. The play gives one account of what might have happened, though, broadening the horizons of New York audiences.