Picture, if you will, Vladimir Putin in his jammies.
“Putin’s public persona has been very well crafted,” says Christopher Geary, who portrays the Russian president in “Kleptocracy,” a drama set in the early 1990s through 2013 that’s having its world premiere at Arena Stage. “Who knows what he’s like when he is home alone with his thoughts? I’ve actually found freedom in that — you don’t know what he’s like when he’s putting on his pajamas.”
Geary gets to act out some of Putin’s private (though not pajama-fied) moments in the play, a fictionalized account of historical happenings that occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union, penned by “House of Cards” staff writer Kenneth Lin.
With the collapse of communism, capitalism comes roaring into Russia, particularly for a group called the Oligarchs. Their leader, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, has maneuvered his way into owning Yukos, the nation’s largest oil company. Khodorkovsky looks to open Russia even more to the world at large, but runs into opposition from a young Vladimir Putin. The play delves into the men’s complicated, often adversarial relationship over the two decades.
Playing a real person — particularly one who remains in the public eye — maneuvering through real events always comes with certain challenges. Geary did research to orient himself to the historical setting (“It was a period of time when I was more concerned with my Sega console,” Geary says), but studying up has its limits.
“Researching and understanding the historical context and the real-life people is what you need to do,” Geary says. “But at the end of the day it is still storytelling. It’s still people talking and listening and using tactics from one another to get what they want. At some point you have to put the book down and say, ‘These are people fighting for what they want.’ That’s far more interesting.”
“Kleptocracy” is at least partly about the forging of a man largely considered to be not exactly friendly to the interests of the United States. Still, Geary can’t let himself think of Putin as the bad guy.
“When capitalism and democracy were being introduced [in Russia], there was this distrust that it could actually work,” Geary says. “And there’s this primal need to take care of oneself. So I’ve tried to remain empathetic, just to understand [his] need to survive. People will do what they think they need to do to survive.”
And, after all, Putin didn’t know how important his actions during the era of “Kleptocracy” would be — he was just a guy trying to get as much as he could. “You don’t wake up in the morning and think, ‘I’m living history,’ ” Geary says. “Looking back, you might be like, ‘Oh, that was a really big deal,’ but for the most part it’s like, ‘This is going to be a pretty challenging Tuesday.’ ”
Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW; through Feb. 24, $41-$105.