Kleptocracy – Putin vs. Oligarch

Kleptocracy is a government with corrupt leaders that use their power to exploit the people and natural resources of their own territory in order to extend their personal wealth and political powers. Typically, this system involves embezzlement of funds at the expense of the wider population. Wikipedia

December 26, 1991. The Soviet Union ceases to exist as the former republics are granted independence. Over the Kremlin, the Soviet flag is replaced with one representing Russia. Chaos ensues. Oligarchs step in to take advantage of the collapse, accumulating wealth by buying  from cash-starved citizens vouchers –  shares in the now private companies that have replaced state-owned industries. One such opportunist is Mikhail Khodorkovsky. When first spied on stage, he’s operating out of his car, resembling not a businessman but a vagrant. His work will pay off, however, making him, as the principal owner of Yukos Oil, one of the richest men in Russia, worth an estimated $15 billion. But he will create a dangerous and powerful enemy – Vladimir Putin, the future president of Russia.

Christopher Geary (Vladimir Putin) and Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky)

Kenneth Lin, who wrote for the fictional drama House Of Cards, sinks his teeth into a true story, albeit one whose characters and plots are slightly fictionalized. But with Putin and Russian oligarchs very much in the news, audiences in the nation’s capital will be drawn to this production, directed by Jackson Gay at Arena Stage. 

Although Khodorkovsky eventually became a philanthropist and an advocate for transparency, while on the rise he was ruthless, agreeing to the assassination of the Siberian mayor and courting Inna, a young woman he lusts after, even though he’s married with a child. Inna is, at first, put off by his advances, but later becomes not only his wife but also his most ardent supporter. 

Putin, of course, thrives on corruption and has no intention of allowing someone like Khodorkovsky to open up Russia to scrutiny and – horror – actual capitalism. The new Russia will produce rich oligarchs, but they will be beholden and controlled by Putin.

Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Brontë England-Nelson (Inna Khodorkovsky)

Khodorkovsky ends up in prison, his visitors limited to his wife and lawyer. Because members of the Russian Congress cannot be imprisoned, Khodorkovsky runs for the Duma. But when his appeal is turned down, his chance to be released evaporates. Khodorkovsky was sentenced to 14 years in prison, finally released in 2013. While the play portrays him as worn down and penniless at the end, in reality he relocated to Switzerland and was apparently able to reclaim his fortunes that had been frozen in foreign banks. He continues to advocate for a democratic Russia through his website.

Except for a handful of supporting characters, this is a two-man play. And the two actors – Christopher Geary as Putin and Max Woertendyke as Khodorkovsky – are more than up to the challenge. This Putin is not the bare-chested, macho man played by Beck Bennett on SNL. Rather, Geary’s Putin presents a persona that seems harmless, even confessing that he became president because he can be pushed around. Geary skillfully transforms the character until, in the second act when he’s confronting an official from the George W. Bush White House (Candy Buckley), he marches around the stage berating her in Russian, a minion on hand to deliver the translation. 

Woertendyke is equally effective as Khodorkovsky. He exhibits a passion for his cause that borders on insanity. After his appeal has been rejected, Inna appears in his cell, pleading with him to flee with her. He refuses, adamant in his belief (delusion?) that he will still be exonerated and released. Woertendyke’s facial expressions and mannerisms convey the strength of his convictions even when facing his guards who, once they realize he’s not going to be elected to the Duma, violently assault him.

Max Woertendyke (Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Candy Buckley (White House Official)

Brontë England-Nelson displays Inna’s transformation from the naive young woman, unsure about marrying a fierce fighter like Khodorkovsky, to a mature wife willing to support his cause. As the White House Official, Candy Buckley swaggers as the American who believes she can solve two problems: convincing Khodorkovsky to sell Yukos to an American oil company, while trying to placate Putin. The scene where she and Putin pose with a mammoth deer they have slaughtered is priceless.

The final scene, brings a beaten Khodorkovsky face to face with an emboldened Putin, and, even though the last line remains a mystery, most of us can guess what was said.

Photos by C. Stanley Photography
Top: Christopher Geary as Vladimir Putin

Written by Kenneth Lin
Directed by Jackson Gay
Arena Stage
1101 Sixth Street SW
Through February 24, 2019

About Charlene Giannetti (307 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines including the New York Times. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her new book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "1Life After You," focusing on the opioid crisis that will be filmed in 2019. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.