From Russia, with corruption.
Russians have given us so much. They were the first people to put a man in space. They created much of the world’s very best literature, drama, and music. But — and hold onto your hats, because this will shock you — the Russian government is … sub-par. It sucks. Has since the Tzars, who, lest we forget, only exited the stage about 102 years ago, when real democracies were busy starting to give women the right to vote.
Kleptocracy, directed by Jackson Gay and going on at Arena Stage now until Feb. 24, examines the bloody chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet empire, as Moscow lurched from one incompetent, oppressive form of government to another. It traces the rise of Vladimir Putin (a mercurial, clearly enjoying himself Christopher Geary) and the fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke looks increasingly miserable, but impassioned), an oil-rich oligarch who decides too late — for him, for the system, for the game — to turn against the corruption that girds and props up essentially every Russian endeavor. Chechen bombings, American investments, 9/11… these and other tragedies find their way into Kenneth Lin’s sturdy dialogue or onto Misha Kachman’s needlessly busy and angular set.
Kleptocracy tries to tell too big a story for the pieces it uses. But there are still some great pieces among them.
The leads are excellent together. Woertendyke gives his character a mix of ambition and conscience that is clearly doomed to fail, while Geary perfectly captures Putin’s smug body language and dead-eyed bemusement.
The opening of act two finds him curled up with a giant, sleeping Siberian tiger. “Well! I’ve gone and done it now, haven’t I?” he asks the audience, to much laughter, demonstrating the play’s unfortunate desire to have its cake and debunk it too.
And the real-life Khodorkovsky did not become the broken shell into which he transforms here. At 55, he now lives in still-quite-rich exile, a vocal (if not exactly potent) critic of the Putin regime.
Still, the show is largely entertaining despite its faults. Costumes from Jessica Ford and sound design from Broken Chord come at you with heightened reality, thought the latter’s score serves mainly to make one miss The Americans. And a pair of supporting performances from the only two women in the piece are most welcome: Brontë England-Nelson shoots daggers as Khodorkovsky’s wife, who can see the writing on the walls. And Candy Buckley’s nameless, Texas-accented White House official is good enough to deserve her own play.
Little thieves are hanged, they say in Russia, but big ones escape. Kleptocracy shows the system that plays into both.