Want to know what the most powerful man in the world is really like? Why not ask the man who plays him on stage?
We may judge and condemn others with abandon, but there is one character with whom we all have empathy: ourselves. Thus the actor’s job is to be, while on stage, his character’s supporter and defender. Anything else is inauthentic.
One actor put it very well in an interview with The Guardian:
“My job as an actor is to employ empathy [in] every character that I play. You hear in training: don’t judge your character, don’t judge your character. Empathy, I think, is one of the most powerful tools that an actor can use.”
That actor is Christopher Geary, and he was talking about playing Vladimir Putin in Kleptocracy, which had its world premiere at Arena Stage last Thursday. Mind you, the man he is talking about is the most dangerous in the world: a ruthless, carnivorous tyrant who has had his enemies shot and poisoned, has stolen territory from Ukraine and Georgia, and who has weakened other countries by maneuvering so that they select leaders who are sympathetic to him, or incompetent, or both.
Putin offers a second challenge to an actor who attempts to play him: his opaqueness. Writer and activist Masha Gesson once observed, “Putin rarely says what he means and even less frequently trusts that others are saying what they mean.”
Geary, who among his more traditional accomplishments is known for his dead-on impersonation of Renée Zellweger, is younger than Putin (who first became Russian President at 48), but he has worked hard to understand and absorb Putin’s other aspects.
To play him properly, the Yale-trained Geary did a deep dive into the available scholarship about the enigmatic Russian leader. “I found Masha Gesson’s book (‘The Man Without a Face: the Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin‘) really useful. Another book I found really helpful was Fiona Hill’s book ‘Mr. Putin’. And every video I watched of Vladimir Putin was great because you saw him use different tactics with reporters,.. What he’s like when he’s comfortable; what he’s like when he’s less comfortable.”
Geary immersed himself in all things Putin — except, he is quick to point out, he did not learn judo, the Russian President’s favorite sport. He did learn enough Russian, though, to deliver the lines he spoke in that language with conviction. He learned the lines “phonetically, and I worked with an incredible teacher [Svetlana Moser was the Russian language coach]. It was kind of a multi-step process. First it was just listening to recordings of it over and over and over again, and listening to native Russian-speaking people…and then it was about breaking it down phonetically. And then it was about intelligibility and logic and knowing the heart of what I was saying.
“It was an incredible challenge,” he observes, and “an incredibly beautiful language, and it was like, well, you’ve gone this far, you might as well acquire this language now.”
Having devoted himself to the study of Vladimir Putin, and having recognized the power of empathy, what insight has Christopher Geary gleaned into the Russian President?
“I think when you get down to the most simple and relatable human needs, he is trying to keep himself safe…if somebody’s threatening his safety, then he will act in his best interest. That comes out in a lot of different ways. But we all are just trying to survive. And that’s something I think everyone can relate to.”
In the play, Geary’s Putin conducts himself with measured self-assurance when he is with his antagonist, the billionaire oil tycoon and reformer Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But Geary also plays the underlying tension.
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“I think Khodorkovsky has a charisma and a connection with people that threatens Putin. And Putin was underestimated for so long, and I think that gets into a person’s head. It’s like the insecurities of childhood that never leave you. In the play, he sees a very confident man who is getting a little too big for his britches. And attempts to connect with him, and when that doesn’t work it’s time for some discipline.”
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Did Geary find him to be opaque? Not entirely. “I think there’s that there’s this idea that he’s this incredibly stoic, kind of immovable flat person,” Geary said, but he had a different idea. “I saw humor in him, and I saw that his body language can be quite relaxed, and easy, and casual, and that’s something I found useful, too.” Still, “I think that self-preservation is key in this character. And not wanting to give all his cards away. In the play I have moments where I am in scene with other characters and then I have scenes where I’m talking directly to the audience alone. And one of the things I was interested in was how he was in a scene with someone, and how does he behave and talk on his own. And I think not giving cards away is definitely in scene with other people, but when you’re alone, that vulnerability and asking questions is really fun and quite liberating because Putin alone can be anything I want him to be.” In the play, Putin alone is droll, witty, and ironic.
Is he a moral man? “I think morality is subjective to an individual or a nation, or a society or a culture. I’m sure he has his own set of morals and adheres to them to the best that he believes… I remember Joe Biden — and this is not a direct quote — saying never underestimate the human mind’s ability to rationalize. So it may be that he’s operating with a strong sense of morality. But some of this may depend on his ability to rationalize things away that might damage others or hurt others in order to get what they think they need.”
Is he a patriot? Does he love Russia, or is he an opportunist? “I think they have to be completely intertwined. I think the two are one for him. If he’s succeeding, then Russia is succeeding. They go hand in hand.”
To do this role Geary learned a great deal about Vladimir Putin, but he declined my invitation to advise a hypothetical President about to go into negotiations with Putin or a hypothetical woman who was the object of Putin’s romantic interest. “I think I’ll stay in my lane,” he said. And when I asked him how Putin would react if he found himself in the situation of Alex More, who is resident in Barbra Steisand’s basement shopping museum in Buyer and Cellar (another role Geary has played extensively), his answer was positively Putinish: “I just don’t think that would happen to Vladimir Putin.
“It’s a great play, though,” he adds.
Kleptocracy continues at Arena’s Kreeger Theater through February 24. “It’s a thrill ride of a play, it’s exciting, very funny, and unlike anything that’s going on right now,” Geary volunteers. “We’re loving DC and audiences have been phenomenal.”