One of the scariest moments in Kleptocracy – Kenneth Lin’s drama about the struggle for power in post-Soviet Russia – occurs when the shadow of a tiger prowls the length of an elevated cage.
The cage – with or without the tiger – is the work of Misha Kachman, a Helen Hayes Award-winning set designer who left Russia 20 years ago, just as many of the events in the play are believed to have taken place.
Kachman spoke to me about the play, now in its world premiere at Arena Stage, in a telephone interview last week.
“I was in Russia throughout the 1990s,” he said. “I knew a few of the people involved, though not the central characters. I was certainly aware of what was going on.”
Kleptocracy begins with the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving chaos and hunger in its wake. There is a vacuum at the top, and two men are fighting to fill it. One is Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Max Woertendyke), owner of the newly-privatized Yukos Oil and leader of the Oligarchs.
The other is Vladimir Putin (Christopher Geary), an ambitious bureaucrat whose pursuit of power is the fuel that propels the plot. Jackson Gay is the director. (Click here for Ian Thal’s excellent review, published earlier this week in DCMTA.)
Although Kachman knew neither man, their circles overlapped. The Oligarchs, in particular, were only a few “handshakes” away.
“At the time,” he explained, “Russia was poor but full of hope. People believed that things would work out, and that ours would become a just and civil society. Putin put a stop to that.”
To depict the world of Kleptocracy, Kachman has designed a set with moving parts, allowing the scene to shift from that of a bleak Moscow street to Putin’s lair at the Kremlin and the grim interior of a prison cell.
The set itself is severe and dark, imbued with menace. As the play begins, the only light is a dim beam emanating from the Yukos sign in the background. The only touch of color is a red door, which symbolically opens, then shuts, turning ultimately into an impenetrable wall.
Looming above the action is the tiger’s cage, stretching into space like a fenced-in pathway to nowhere. There are shifts of light, dividing the single set into larger and smaller units.
With its quick cuts, Kleptocracy is more like TV or film than stage. That’s not surprising, since Kenneth Lin, the playwright, is best known for his television work, including House of Cards.
“Ken has taken real events and imbued them with a great deal of poetic vision,” said Kachman. “However, it’s important for people to understand that this is fiction, not history.”
Although all the major characters in the play are based on real people, many of the events and conversations are, by definition, speculative.
Of course, there are facts. Khodorkovsky, who is the central character, really did try, in the end, to bring some form of democracy to Russia.
“For example, we know he wanted to shed the cloak of corruption, to become more open and charitable, and to bring the country into the wider world,” Kachman added, pointing out that Khodorkovsky, like his fellow Oligarchs, is a noted philanthropist, now living in exile.
In the end, Kleptocracy is the playwright’s attempt to understand power and how it’s achieved.
“Khodorkovsky thought he had power, because he had money. But Putin said ‘No. Power is not money, it’s who wins.’” Kachman suspects that Putin will stay in office for the rest of his life. Why? “Because he is too powerful to overthrow.”
Having been on the scene while the power struggle went on has clearly influenced the design. However, Kachman’s appointment as set designer was pure coincidence, since he was already well known at Arena from his work on The Originalist and other plays. His sets have been seen throughout the US, as well as at many other DC theaters, including the Kennedy Center and Woolly Mammoth.
In addition to his work in the theater, Kachman is an associate professor and head of the MFA Design Program at the University of Maryland.
Not surprisingly, Kachman started out as an artist. He still paints. (Click here to see some of his recent work.) Growing up in St. Petersburg – then Leningrad – his hero was Chagall. But his greatest and most lasting influence was Max Beckmann and the German Expressionists. Indeed, the darkness of the Kleptocracy set is reminiscent of Beckmann’s Night, which was painted just after World War I, when Germany, like the USSR, was plunged into chaos and loss.
Now 48, and a graduate of the St. Petersburg Theatre Arts Academy with degrees in both fine art and scenic design, Kachman left Russia in 1999, accompanied by his wife and daughter.
Most of his family was already in the US. His father, a scientist, had emigrated in 1991 when he was invited to join the faculty at Georgetown University in Washington. He has since moved to New York.
Kachman prefers DC. He and his wife have two daughters, ages 16 and 24. One is a high school junior at Sidwell Friends, while the other is now at medical school in Chicago. In that respect, she’s following in the footsteps of the rest of the family.
“Like many Russian Jews, I come from a long line of doctors,” Kachman laughed, pointing out that most of his relatives, including his twin brother, are in medicine or science.
“I’m the only exception, so far.”
Running time: One hour and forty-five minutes, including a fifteen-minute intermission.