Political pundits are trying to predict the end game for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
You can see Vladimir Putin’s early days in the new political thriller play “We Declare You a Terrorist,” running at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland now through May 8.
“People will be surprised by similarities about what Putin did then and what he is doing now,” Actor Cody Nickell told WTOP. “It is definitely a mystery. … You don’t know where it’s going. It’s full of tension. Audiences might come thinking they know what’s happening in Ukraine, then get a whole new version of what happened in Chechnya 20 years ago.”
Set in Moscow in 2002, Putin has brutally crushed a rebellion in the territory of Chechnya during his first official term as Russian president. One night at the Dubrovka Theater, a group of Chechen insurgents hijack a blockbuster musical production and take the entire 800-person audience hostage for nearly three days, including the playwright (Nickell).
“It ended with the Russian government deploying a gas that put everyone to sleep, then they stormed the theater and killed the Chechens,” Nickell said. “The gas ended up killing over 100 hostages. I think it is a fentanyl derivative, but they didn’t tell anyone, so no one knew how to treat what was happening. … [My character] was knocked out for 10 hours.”
The script cleverly jumps around in time between the attack and the aftermath.
“This play toggles back and forth between that hostage event and a year later where my character has tried to sneak into Chechnya for unknown reasons and is being interrogated,” Nickell said. “Is he a terrorist? Is he aiding and abetting a Chechen terrorist? Is he a dupe? Is he a fool? … As the play unfolds, you get a clearer picture of him.”
The time transitions are visually crafted by Directors Ryan Rilette and Jared Mezzocchi.
“They decided to double down on the projections,” Nickell said. “The entire representation of what happened in the theater is done through cameras. … In a backroom, they have set up a small soundstage where the two female cast members — one is a hostage and the other is a hostage taker — are filmed [acting in real time] for the entire show.”
Playwright Tim J. Lord wrote the play over a decade ago and Round House programmed it before the pandemic, not knowing that Putin would eventually invade Ukraine.
“It was our second or third day of rehearsal when Russia actually invaded and all of the place names in the play suddenly became very relevant,” Nickell said. “My character is Ukrainian born. It’s terrifying and horrible what’s happening over there. To be involved in a production asking us to look closer at state-sanctioned violence … it’s clearly so timely.”
While the themes are familiar, most audiences won’t know how this thriller turns out.
“No one was really paying attention to the Chechen War,” Nickell said. “America was involved in its heaviest times in the War on Terror, Russia was calling it their War on Terror, people just didn’t really pay attention, whereas now the entire world is watching Ukraine.”
It helps kick off the National Capital New Play Festival at Round House.
“Round House is really stepping up as a curator of future canonical pieces in the American theater,” Nickell said. “As an actor that’s often my favorite place to work: in a room with a playwright on a new play, because you really feel like a colleague, like your interpretation of this character is helping bring to life something that wasn’t there months ago.”