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At Washington's Arena Stage, a dramatic interpretation of Vladimir Putin's rise


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Greed, manipulation, duplicity, the building blocks of a new play in the nation's capital.

Those are themes that come up a lot these days, but, in this case, the setting is Russia more than 20 years ago.

Jeffrey Brown takes us there.

Jeffrey Brown: Vladimir Putin, a firm grip on power in Russia, his government implicated in meddling in U.S. politics, and now appearing in fictional form at the Arena Stage theater in Washington, D.C.

Christopher Geary: The powerful, the great within Russia picked me, a small pabulum bureaucrat of limited intellect and ambition.


Jeffrey Brown: The play "Kleptocracy," set in the 1990s and early 2000s, is based on real events: Putin's surprising rise to power, from KGB apparatchik to prime minister and president.

Max Woertendyke: Corruption is spreading in this country. You could say that it started right here.

Jeffrey Brown: And his face-off against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the real-life oligarch who, as head of the enormous Yukos oil company, became the richest man in Russia and a political nemesis, leading to his imprisonment.

Kenneth Lin: What I saw was what I thought was maybe the greatest lost opportunity in modern history.

Jeffrey Brown: For playwright Kenneth Lin, the story centers on a moment when the future of Russia, and U.S.-Russian relations, could have gone in a very different direction.

Kenneth Lin: Privatization was about to happen in Russia. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he really came very close to selling his Russian oil company to an American oil company.

And if he was successful in doing this, the United States, the West and Eurasia would have been joining forces in an economic and diplomatic and a political endeavor that really would have completely changed the world.

Actress: So Chevron, you will sell Yukos to Chevron.

Max Woertendyke: Chevron.

Actress: Fantastic. Put it there.

Jeffrey Brown: It's a tale of two ambitious and flawed men.

Khodorkovsky attained his riches and built an empire through a rigged auction and sometimes thuggish means, before later turning to reformist politics.

Putin, in the play, is ruthless, and in real life many of his political enemies have ended up dead. But, here, he's also a bit of a card, and at times, speaks directly to the audience.

Christopher Geary: Khodorkovsky rose to become the owner of Yukos Oil and the richest man in the history of Russia by employing more cunning, corruption and deceit than anyone in the country. Those are incontrovertible facts, for those of us in the audience who like our incontrovertible facts.


Christopher Geary: It's just gotten stranger and stranger. And he is moving closer and closer to the foreground of our political discussions here.

Jeffrey Brown: Christopher Geary plays Putin.

Christopher Geary: The truth isn't always what is readily visible. He is based on a very famous person, but he is also a theatrical creation of Ken's mind. And he has colors of Shakespearian kings and petulant children and deeply wounded souls. And that's just so much fun to play.

Jeffrey Brown: Playwright Lin was a writer for the over-the-top drama about American politics "House of Cards."

Was that good preparation for looking at Russian politics?

Kenneth Lin: For every episode of "House of Cards," you had to ideally find equally powerful and equally resolute characters, and they had to act against each other to win out.

And, certainly, what you have here is a play where enormous stakes are on the table, and they need to play the game at the highest level to come out on top.

Jeffrey Brown: Max Woertendyke plays Khodorkovsky.

Max Woertendyke: If an audience expects to come see the play and be able to draw very clear parallels, like, this play is actually about Trumpian America, I think it's less clear than that.

But I think it's incredibly relevant, because I think it's about powerful men who want the things that they want, and sometimes they want good things, and sometimes they want bad things, and sometimes their ethics -- they're willing to bend their ethics to get them regardless.

Max Woertendyke: What do you want?

Actress: You. It's enough. You don't need to die here.

Jeffrey Brown: Khodorkovsky spent 10 years in prison on tax evasion and other charges that he and allies say were politically motivated.

In 2013 he was released and agreed to leave the country. Today, he lives in Switzerland and promotes civil society reform against Putin.

As the Russia investigation motors on in Washington, the play "Kleptocracy" continues its premiere run through February 24.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Arena Stage theater.

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