The Russian president was satirized in the fall in the delirious “Putin on Ice (that isn’t the real title of this show)” at Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theater. Putin is unnamed but unmistakable in Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s “Describe the Night,” an Obie Award winner last year as best American play that’s getting its area debut at Woolly Mammoth in the spring.
And cementing Putin as a stealth theatrical headliner is “Kleptocracy,” a new drama from former “House of Cards” writer Kenneth Lin, having its premiere at Arena Stage. “Kleptocracy” recounts — in mostly fictionalized terms — the story of Russian oil baron and Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was arrested for fraud and spent a decade in prison.
“I thought it was fascinating and tragic that he went from being the richest man in Russia to being put in prison by Vladimir Putin,” says New York producer Robert Ahrens, who brought the idea to Lin in 2013.
In long ago 2013, of course, phenomena such as “President Trump” and “Russian collusion” had not yet been fathomed. The suspenseful chapters of recent weeks were still to come: American arrested in Russia, charged as a spy. Treasury secretary fields lawmakers’ questions about sanctions relief for Russian oligarch. FBI investigated Trump as a possible counteragent.
“We had no idea,” says Ahrens, whose major producing credits began with the unexpected 2007 Broadway hit musical “Xanadu.” “It makes the story more relevant. But I always found it relevant.”
Putin has been a hypnotic figure to the West at least since George W. Bush “looked the man in the eye,” as the president put it, and came out the other side babbling about the former KGB agent’s soul. Beck Bennett’s shirtless shtick on “Saturday Night Live,” as Putin the Trump Whisperer, rides high in the American mind, and internationally, the Putin brand is popular wherever nationalism rears its head. In Russia, he even has his own weekly TV reality show.
“The effect that Putin has on America is very operatic, and poetic, in a sense,” says Lin, who notes that “Kleptocracy” — with a reflective (if unreliable) Putin as the lone figure addressing the audience — will be utterly transparent about what are and are not facts.
The slippery slope of disinformation and rampant mythmaking, on the other hand, was the tactic of “Putin on Ice,” which Pierson and Yury Urnov, the show’s Russian-born director, are hoping to revive. That performance began in a secret room off the theater lobby, where audience members — blindfolded and individually escorted — could let their fingers briefly, reverently graze a bust of Putin. The show continually subverted what it said and did, always alighting on the notion of Putin pulling the strings of our consciousness.
“I kind of live with him,” says Urnov, who now lives in Baltimore. “He is there for almost exactly half of my life. He was appointed just before 2000, and I am 42. It’s like a family member or something — the one who moves in and doesn’t leave. You [Americans] are kind of sure, at least, with an eight-year [term] limit you can get rid of almost anybody.”
Lin worked on “House of Cards” during seasons that included a Russian president, but his deeper connection to “Kleptocracy” stems from his roots as a child of parents fleeing Mao’s China.
“I just happened to be that person for whom this is an ever- present story in my life,” Lin says, recounting family sagas of Chinese Nationalist Party leaders and opium addicts, a rebellious grandmother unbinding a little girl’s feet, and scampering across international borders up until he was born in the Bronx in the 1970s.
“My bedtime stories,” the nattily dressed Lin says in an interview at Arena Stage, “were, ‘You almost didn’t live — except for America.’ ”
Russia, too, grew volatile in the long transition after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “It’s interesting that Khodorkovsky stayed when most oligarchs left,” Ahrens says, touching on a mystery of the play. Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Ahrens reckons, highlighted “the omni-potence of Vladimir Putin.”
Like Ahrens, “Describe the Night” author Rajiv Joseph was fascinated by Russia well before the 2016 American presidential campaign. Of particular interest: the 2010 airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia, that killed 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and a number of Polish leaders, an incident that some blamed on Russia. Joseph calls “Describe the Night” “a spider web of a play” with the story spinning from Isaac Babel’s travails in Stalin’s Russia (the writer was executed in 1940) to the emergence of Putin.
“Be who you are and you might rise high in tomorrow’s Soviet Union,” the Putin character is advised. “When the world is a gang fight, people want a gangster to lead them.”
“It revolves around notions of what is true and not true,” Joseph says. “Are we understanding what we are seeing? How does that relate to how we understand history? And current events?”
“Non-theater people think of language as being aligned with truth,” says “Putin on Ice” writer Lola B. Pierson. “And I think theater people are comfortable with the idea that it’s not. At all.”
Lin echoes that, saying, “I am suspicious of anybody who says, ‘I really know something’ when clearly there is so much material out there that’s designed to obfuscate and confuse.”
The Russian artists working on these projects are less daunted by the Putin I’m not there mythos.
“He is different from leaders of the Communist Party who at least had to pretend they were following some kind of ideology,” Urnov says. “Maybe there is this one idea: some kind of image of the great Russia and the magic knights of the KGB who are protecting this beautiful entity from dirty Western hands. But even that, for me, seems exaggerated. He is very practical, tactical, goal oriented.”
“I am annoyed by the notion of romanticizing him,” says “Kleptocracy” set designer Misha Kachman, who, like Putin, grew up in Leningrad. “He’s a thief and a thug and a killer.”
Does that mean theater, with its fictions and slippery frames and glorifying spotlight, is a bad place to think about Putin?
“Theater is a good place to think about ourselves,” Kachman says. “Theater doesn’t matter unless we learn something about who we are, why this is happening to us, what’s next. Otherwise we’re just looking at stories about exotic people.”
The plague of disinformation has become an unarguable fact of daily American life, whether it’s Putin or something else “sowing chaos,” as Joseph puts it. That’s why “Kleptocracy,” Ahrens says, “is about thinking, not just taking in information and taking it at face value for 10 hours a day. The play’s call to arms would be: ‘Be informed. Be smart. Read. And think.’ ”
Still, the image continues to ascend of Putin as a master manipulator. “We are in the process of mythologizing Putin, so he is making it into the art scene,” Urnov says. With a gallows laugh, he adds, “And pure evil — there is always a need to dramatize that.”
Kleptocracy, by Kenneth Lin. Through Feb. 24 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. $56-$115. 202-488-3300 or arenastage.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect credit with the photo of Putin’s bust. The photo was taken by Zebadiah Potler, not Britt Olsen-Ecker.