Q&A: Arena Stage chronicles Putin’s rise in ‘Kleptocracy’ world premiere

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Kleptocracy' at Arena Stage (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s no secret that Russia is flexing its muscles on the world stage.

Max Woertendyke and Candy Buckley star in "Kleptocracy" at Arena Stage. (C. Stanley Photography)

In 2008, President George W. Bush condemned Russia for invading Georgia. In 2012, Governor Mitt Romney called Russia the Unites States’ biggest geopolitical foe. In 2014, President Barack Obama condemned Russia for annexing Crimea. And in 2016, Russia interfered in the U.S. election, sparking President Donald Trump’s denials of collusion.

How exactly did former KGB agent Vladimir Putin become Russia’s reigning mischief maker? The answer lies in the world premiere play “Kleptocracy” at Arena Stage now through Feb. 24.

“It is a fictionalized account of a time in 1990s Russia when the country faced two competing ideologies,” actor Max Woertendyke told WTOP. “One, represented by my character, was a more liberalized, aligned with the West version, and one represented by someone who looms large in our imagination now, Vladimir Putin — and that’s obviously the path Russia took.”

Woertendyke plays Putin rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who wants to open Russia to the West.

“The play really evenhandedly deals with a flawed, visionary, undisciplined dissident, which is Khodorkovsky, and a flawed, disciplined czar, being Putin,” Woertendyke said. “It’s a story both about a personal battle of wills between these two men and a story about a time when decisions being made across the country could have a profound effect on us at home.”

Directed by Jackson Gay, the play was written by “House of Cards” alum Kenneth Linn prior to the 2016 presidential election meddling, making the timely relevance rather serendipitous.

“Ken started writing in early 2016 or late 2015,” Woertendyke said. “He was approached by a guy named Rob Ahrens, one of our commercial producers, who discovered the Khodorkovsky story and was fascinated by his fall from grace. … In a way, it’s fascinating that things have aligned the way they have in terms of timing. You couldn’t have hoped for betting timing.”

“It’s absolutely freaky,” co-star Candy Buckley added. “We’re getting ready to open and the news is just oligarch, oligarch, Russia, Russia. It’s mind-bending. And although it is about all of that, it’s also highly, highly theatricalized, so it’s not a documentary by any means.”

Buckley plays the role of White House Official, the personification of U.S. policy at the time.

“I’m the one American,” Buckley said. “On opening night we had a big party and all of these people came up to me saying, ‘Who are you supposed to be?’ … They thought I was Georgette Mosbacher! … The director wisely told me to play it Texan, which gives me a lot of freedom. … Russians are high drama; so are Texans and the president at the time was from Texas. But I am not anyone in particular, so every night I put my wig on, we call her something different.”

Meanwhile, co-star Christopher Geary gets big laughs as a “terrifying yet impish” Putin.

“The audience loves Putin,” Buckley said. “They know him. He gets to engage with them and stuff, and you can tell, wow, the audiences here are so intelligent.”

The Putin character talks directly to the crowd, fittingly “tearing down” the fourth wall.

“I sometimes get jealous,” Woertendyke added. “They’re out there lapping it up laughing and, as Khodorkovsky, I sit backstage thinking, ‘What’s wrong with you guys? I’m the good guy!'”

The red and black Soviet-themed set is visually designed for maximum audience interaction.

“We almost feel like when we’re performing it, we’re at an operatic level,” Buckley said. “It requires such muscularity. The way the set is designed, we’re in a thrust stage, which means we’re out there thrust in the audience, but the stage has a diagonal to it, which is emblematic of what’s going on in the action. So, we’re at sixes and sevens. We’re turned and throwing it out there into the audience. I have a scene with Putin that is in such a weird location!”

She wouldn’t spoil the secret, so you’ll have to just come see “Kleptocracy” at Arena Stage.

“Regardless of what the results of our investigations here are, I think we’re going to be talking about Russia for the foreseeable future,” Woertendyke said. “They’re here.”

Find more details on the Arena Stage website. Listen to our full cast conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'Kleptocracy' cast (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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