Kenneth Lin wrote for “House of Cards” back when “House of Cards” was cool. But what denizens of our town know is that, for the terrifying and the bizarre, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby. So in Kleptocracy, Lin has written about the rise and fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woetendyke) who, for one brief moment, was the richest man in Russia until a certain politician named Vladimir Putin (Christopher Geary) became his enemy. And in Arena’s fine world premiere, the story is canny, thoughtful, and exciting, in ways that real life seldom is.
Kleptocracy is a fictional version of real events, and so tidies up history in service to the story. Thus we see Khodorkovsky buying vouchers from the back of his car as the play opens, trading cash for shares in the newly-privatized state industries. (When communism fell, the Russians, on the advice of Western experts, issued shares of the formerly state-owned industries to the general public. Like the biblical Esau, most Russians sold their vouchers for ready money to buy consumer goods, of which they had been long deprived. The voucher purchasers became the Russian oligarchs.)
Khodorkovsky is seeking more than vouchers, though. Notwithstanding that he is already married, with a child, he is seeking the love of Inna (Brontë England-Nelson), whose companionship, he believes, will identify him as a success. Love and vouchers finally in hand, he becomes the principal owner of Yukos Oil Company. He is by now worth fifteen billion dollars.
Lin and director Jackson Gay move the story along quickly. The callow Khodorkovsky acquiesces in the assassination of the Mayor (Elliott Bales) of the Siberian Town of Nefteyugansk, who had raised some troubling charges against Yukos Oil, so that he will be able eventually to sell Yukos for a fortune to another oil company. In the meantime, Putin becomes President of Russia, principally because he can be pushed around. Putin explains this himself, sly smile on his face.
Once at the apex of his wealth and power, though, Khodorkovsky becomes an advocate of transparency and an enemy of corruption. This puts him directly in conflict with Putin, who understands that corruption is the lifeblood of Russia — the grease which moves the Russian wheel. (Transparency International rates Russia the 4th-most corrupt nation in the world, tied with Mexico and ahead of only Venezuela, North Korea and Somalia).
I do not mean to give the story away, but it is a matter of public record that Putin had Khodorkovsky arrested on charges related to Yukos; that he was tried and sentenced to prison; that he subsequently ran for the Duma from prison (a member of the Russian Congress is immune from imprisonment) while his conviction was being appealed and that the appeal was suddenly decided against him, snuffing out his candidacy.
closes February 24, 2019
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It is also a matter of public record that Khodorkovsky became a philanthropist, and in Kleptocracy he becomes a Tolstoy-like figure, pledging to surrender all his wealth to the Russian people. At the beginning of the play he accuses Inna of “thinking like the serf” when she doubts that he, or anyone, can become rich in the new Russian state; by the play’s second Act, he seems like a modern-day Alexander II, freeing the serfs.
The play, like history, has many tendrils threatening to take it out of control, but Lin ties things together with the play’s only fully fictional principal character: an unnamed White House aide (Candy Buckley) to the second Bush who arrogantly seeks to dictate terms to the two Russian leaders. She tells Khodorkovsky who he should sell Yukos to (Chevron) and warns him against scuffling with Putin. She warns Putin against “reabsorbing” Yukos after he jails Khodorkovsky, prompting Putin, hitherto cool and ironic, into a towering rage. (“I will be here after everyone else is dust,” he says chillingly. “Your President will be my dog.”) But she’s not wrong; foreign investment is the ne plus ultra of economic development in any country with first-world aspirations, and no foreign company will invest in a business that might be “reabsorbed.”
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A few words about the principals: they’re all great. Woertendyke, who ages beautifully during the course of the play (Dave Bova does the makeup) imbues Khodorkovsky with a sort of melancholy which animates his beginning and anticipates his end. In the first scene he explains to Inna that the world is run not by love but by want; and for the rest of the play it is Khodorkovsky’s want which runs the world of the story. What he wants — security, justice, acceptance, honesty — is just out of reach, and the sense of need and frustration is plain on his face. Woertendyke effectively gives us a portrait of a man whose universe is closed to anything beyond his circle of want; when Putin hints at a way Khodorkovsky might be able to retain his wealth and achieve some political authority as well, Woertendyke’s face is as closed as the dark side of the Moon.
Geary plays Putin as a man marvelously self-aware, and as sensitive to the strengths and weaknesses of others as a spider is to the quiverings of her own web. Writer and activist Masha Gessen once said “Putin rarely says what he means and even less frequently trusts that others are saying what they mean.” We sense that Gessen is right when Geary as Putin — at the time, a functionary in the Yeltsin administration — appears at a dinner party to honor Khodorkovsky on his birthday. He speaks infrequently, and with a moment of hesitation, and you can see him calculate what it is he is about to utter — which is invariably some banality. When Putin later addresses us in fourth-wall-breaking monologues, Geary puts on an extra layer of warmth and candor, and if it makes you think of Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood before — well, you know what happened — who could blame you? Geary adapts this same warm, confiding tone when he is talking to Khodorkovsky, and you can sense from it how formidable an adversary Putin is.
Finally, Buckley updates the image of the Ugly American; crude and brash, she treats the most powerful men in Russia like children, dictating terms to them and threatening them when they resist. Of course, this is all in the text, but Buckley takes to the character like a fish to water, striding through conversations, making imperious gestures, and in general acting like a schoolteacher with unruly children on a field trip. Lin’s intention is clearly to subvert our usual pro-American sympathies; to Buckley’s credit, she goes about as far as she can go without alienating herself from the character.
This is not to ignore the work of supporting characters, especially England-Nelson as Inna, Bales as Mayor Petukhov, Alex Piper as the prison guard Roman and Tony Manna as the human rights lawyer, terminally ill, who defends Khodorkovsky. The work achieves exceptional authenticity, down to the Russian script on the oxygen tanks which the lawyer carries with him. The production, wisely, seldom uses dialect (a conversation among Russians in Russian would sound unaccented to them, just as a conversation among Americans in American English sounds unaccented to us) but when they use dialect (and when the characters occasionally speak in Russian), it seems spot on. Svetlana Moser is the Russian language coach; Zach Campion is the dialect coach and the production acknowledges Elena Boudovskaia and Yuliya Yatsyshina for additional help with pronunciation. The play uses music in the same way a television show might; Broken Chord’s compositions are perfect.
Capitalism cannot work in a culture which does not expect, and demand, economic fairness; nor can it prevail in a society which believes that success can be achieved only through corruption. At the beginning of the play Putin recites a poem written by a Russian absurdist. In it, a man who rejoices in the aroma of voluptuous women grows in size until he reaches the ceiling. Then he shatters into a thousand pieces, and the gardener sweeps him up and disposes of him. Putin never figures out the meaning of this poem. But after you see Kleptocracy, you will.
Kleptocracy by Kenneth Lin, directed by Jackson Gay . Featuring John Austin, Elliott Bales, Candy Buckley, Joseph Carlson (who served as fight captain as well), Brontë England-Nelson, Christopher Geary, Alex Piper, Tony Manna and Max Woertendyke . Set designer: Misha Kachman . Costume designer: Jessica Ford . Lighting designer: Masha Tsimring . Original music and sound design: Broken Chord (Daniel Baker, Aaron Meicht, and Phillip Peglow) . Projection design: Nicholas Hussong . Hair, wig and makeup design: Dave Bova . Fight Director: Lewis Shaw . Voice and Dialect Coach: Zach Campion . Dramaturg: Jocelyn Clark . Stage manager: Christi B. Spann, assisted by Mimi Craig . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.