You can’t get far in Washington, D.C., without someone bringing up Russian President Vladimir Putin and his efforts to interfere in U.S. democracy.
So there’s no more fitting venue than the nation’s capital for a world premiere about the rise of Putin from a KGB grunt to the most powerful man in post-Soviet Russia.
“Kleptocracy,” which opened this month at Arena Stage, charts that course largely through his rivalry with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who at the time controlled a Russian oil company but wanted to sell it to an American firm such as Exxon or Chevron — a move Putin saw as a threat to the Russian state.
While essentially the good guy in this clash of the oligarchs, Khodorkovsky as portrayed by Max Woertendyke is himself no saint. Early in the play, we find him authorizing the murder of a mayor who had dared to question his failure to properly pay workers.
The deceased mayor, with blood in full view from a head wound, returns throughout the play — particularly when Khodorkovsky, by then jailed by Putin, is reading letters the mayor had sent to him when the oil company first came to his town.
It’s impossible to avoid comparing the mayor’s ghost to that of Banquo, who visits Macbeth after the Shakespearean king has him murdered by hired henchmen of his own.
Whether playwright Kenneth Lin, who counts work on the “House of Cards” franchise among his credits, was writing for a Washington audience doesn’t really seem in doubt. The script features some inside jokes that require a somewhat advanced understanding of the current president of Russia.
You shouldn’t enter the theater, for instance, without knowing that Putin once took a Super Bowl ring from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
All told, “Kleptocracy” is dark, ominous and points toward the efforts we know Putin has taken to meddle in U.S. politics. There’s an all-too-obvious reference to his attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election in favor of Donald Trump.
It’s a way to escape the bubble of Capitol Hill without really leaving it. Just don’t expect much to be left to the imagination.
“Kleptocracy” is scheduled to run through Feb. 24, 2019, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater.
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