‘Kleptocracy’ – Russian History Lesson or Origin Story?

Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater’s production of Kleptocracy is a mashup of absurdist Russian poetry, SNL-style Putin spoofing, and Dostoyevsky-level discourse on the human condition. Reflective of today’s headlines, rather than a historical account, playwright Kenneth Lin has styled Kleptocracy as an origin story to contemporary Russo-American political turmoil. Whether that’s your cup of Russian Tea Room depends on you.

It’s a pivotal moment in history: The USSR is no more. Into the void, hyper-capitalistic Oligarchs, a new class of robber barons, battle power-rapacious politicians for the future of Russia. Kleptocracy illustrates this dark age of Russia by focusing on the clash between its wealthiest citizen, enterprising Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), who engineered himself from Communist Youth League student into controlling ownership of massive former state-run oil company Yukos, and young politician Vladimir Putin (Christopher Geary), who is charting his own path to power.

Crude oil is the language of U.S. diplomacy, represented by standout Candy Buckley as an unnamed diplomat and perfect personification of Texas oil power player. Khodorovsky attempts to reform and open Russian markets to the US, specifically Chevron/Texaco, and by extension, the world, in a blurry grey of philanthropy, avarice, vision, ambition, and megalomania. Putin meanwhile sells a vision of protecting mother Russia but can’t relinquish any victory that doesn’t redound accolades to himself, and destroys any power that rivals his own. In the end, the rivals care far more about their places in history than their country.

The play is schizophrenic. It aspires to tackle serious questions about capitalism, democracy and policy purity, yet devolves into a male machismo contest between two men, opposite ideology, same goals: self-glorification. Any serious discourse is undermined by significant farce. Putin repeatedly breaks the third wall with sardonic Frank Underwood style anti-hero commentary – which became more understandable after learning that scribe Lin is a seasoned House of Cards veteran – but nonetheless diminishes the seriousness of other scenes.

Jackson Gay’s direction is bold – heavy on soliloquy and panting emotion. The set designed by Misha Kachman is perfectly evocative of the era, from the first scene with the dated Mercedes diesel.One of the real stars of the performance is the lighting (Masha Tsimring) and shadow puppetry (Ksusha Litvak). The cast is well arrayed – young Putin in a tracksuit is particularly fantastic – thanks to costume designer Jessica Ford.

Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith said, “This is a play about a moment in time in the 90s that’s thrillingly about this moment in time.” Is Kleptocracy a spoof, with a snarky Putin addressing the audience while caressing a giant stuffed Siberian tiger? Or is it a serious discourse about the struggles of protecting state interests in the rampage of post-socialist Capitalism? Perhaps it is both.

Watching this spotlight on two men battling for the soul of Russia, and concomitantly, U.S.-Russia relations during post-Soviet era, is the equivalent to turning on the kitchen lights at midnight and watching the cockroaches scatter. You may not like all you see, but you’ll learn something.

Kleptocracy is playing at Arena Stage Kreeger Theater at the Mead Center for American Theater through February 24, 2019  (1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington DC 20024). Running time: two hours minutes with one fifteen minute intermission. For information or tickets call 202-488-3300 or click here.

Photos credit: C. Stanley Photography

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