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Kleptocracy ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
January 31, 2019 

Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Much of what you’ll see in Kenneth Lin’s Kleptocracy is based on historic events – from Vladimir Putin’s rise from a low-level KGB agent to his position as the second president of the Russian Federation. Putin was plucked from spy agency obscurity by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Jewish billionaire owner of the enormous Russian oil company Yukos.  He expected the young Putin to do his bidding.  Unfortunately, Khodorkovsky underestimated Putin’s avarice, unbridled ego and his penchant for revenge.

The story opens in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union with a young, impoverished Socialist, Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), who woos and wins his future wife, Inna, promising her he will find success through the American-instituted system of vouchers for cash.  Together with business partner Platon Lebedev (Alex Piper) the men gain total domination of the Russian economy.  Lin, an award-winning playwright and TV series writer who wrote several seasons of House of Cards, keeps the intrigue and suspense running at full tilt.

(L to R) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) and Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Christopher Geary, as the villainous Putin, told me he read up on Putin to research his role and then “tossed it all aside” when deciding how to play him.  His Putin is quirky, fond of quoting Russian Absurdism, duplicitous, cryptic, ruthless, egotistical and Machiavellian, and yet Geary does a masterful job of creating a schizoid man who is believably human and oddly inhuman.  No mean feat.

The story harkens back to the 1990’s and the rise of Yeltsin, who transformed Russia’s socialist economy into a capitalist one.  Those were heady days when private industry, formerly state-owned, was possible and unimaginable fortunes went to the oligarchs.  Everything was sunny days till the price of oil tanked and the economy went into freefall.  Putin  appropriated the companies, or killed the owners, and jailed Khodorkovsky.  “I can’t free him.  I can’t kill him.  He’s my Mary Queen of Scots,” Putin ponders aloud.

(Front) Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin). (Back L-R) Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky), Tony Manna (Boris Berezovsky/Yuri Schmidt/Ensemble), John Austin (Valentine/Ensemble), Alex Piper (Platon Lebedev/Roman/Ensemble), Joseph Carlson (Leonid Nevzlin/Interpreter/Kuchma/Ensemble/Fight Captain) and Elliott Bales (Petukhov/Ensemble) in the world premiere of Kleptocracy. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

With murders and disappearances ordered by Putin, the story intensifies when the American oil company, Chevron, attempts to buy Yukos through a White House Official (Candy Buckley in an exceptionally outstanding portrayal) who meets with Putin to seal the deal.  Buckley’s character, in what reads as a composite of Conde Rice/Georgette Mosbacher, is as tough as they come yet is no match for the mercurial Putin. “Your president will be my dog,” he threatens.  Hmmm.  Prescient?  (And lest we forget.  The U. S. currently shares a particularly fraught law with Russia – that no politician can be charged with a crime while he’s in office.) Checkmate.

Highly recommended.  A suspenseful thriller from beginning to end.

Directed by Jackson Gay; Set Design by Misha Kachman; Costume Design by Jessica Ford; Lighting Design by Masha Tsimring; Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord; Projection Design by Nicholas Hussong.

With John Austin as Valentin and others; Elliott Bales as Petukhov and others; Joseph Carlson as Leonid Nevzlin, Interpreter, Kuchma, and others; Bronté England-Nelson as Inna Khodorkovsky; and Tony Manna as Boris Berezovsky, Yuri Schmidt, and others.

Through February 24th at Arena Stage in the Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

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