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How does a man become a dictator? Simple: Anyone can be broken, given the right cocktail of bribery and coercion, and that was probably never truer than in the young USSR. Spooky Action Theater explores the thin line between power and corruption in Soviet Russia with their latest production of John Hodge’s Olivier Award–winning play Collaborators.
The play begins with a dream: Joseph Stalin (Joe Duquette), laughing maniacally, chases a man and threatens to kill to him with a typewriter. This heavy-handed bit of symbolism becomes more interesting when we learn the man in question is author Mikhail Bulgakov (Paul Reisman), best known for his satirical novel The Master and Margarita. In 1938 Moscow, Bulgakov and his intellectual circle are constantly persecuted by Stalin’s secret police, personified by Vladimir (G. Michael Harris) and Stepan (Sha Golanski). Stalin’s thugs pay Bulgakov and his wife Yelena (MacKenzie Beyer) a visit to make the author an offer he should not refuse: If he writes a propaganda play in honor of Stalin’s 60th birthday, his new play Molière can be performed again. While Bulgakov initially sets out, begrudgingly, to write the play alone, eventually he receives help from an unlikely collaborator (get it?)—Stalin himself. While Stalin helps with the play, he asks for Bulgakov’s help with running the Motherland, asking the playwright to forge his signature on political orders. Cue a Dostoyevsky-esque moral struggle.
While some members of the cast were apparently under the weather—coughs could be heard both onstage and off—the acting in Collaborators is uniformly solid. Reisman and Duquette have great chemistry as the author and the dictator, respectively. Duquette in particular has a natural, commanding presence on stage which lends itself to portraying the Russian despot. Beyer’s performance as Bulgakov’s wife is similarly weightless, even while navigating the heavier moments that come with struggles under a totalitarian government. Beyer and Reisman together portray a palpable love, which will send you to Wikipedia wondering about the real Mr. and Mrs. Bulgakov. The ensemble, too, has some great comedic moments, particularly from Kim Curtis as the Bulgakov’s fallen bourgeois roommate Vasilly, as well as from Willem Krumich and Matthew Marcus who are hilarious in scenes from the imaginary propaganda play Young Joseph.
The scenery, from set designer Giorgos Tsappas and scenic artist Mariana Fernandez, takes a geometric aesthetic reminiscent of silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The set is deceptively simple; a set of pocket doors alternatively serve as kitchen cupboard and the dream realm of Stalin. With its heavy wooden doors and stone walls, Spooky Action’s space—the Universalist National Memorial Church—already gives the audience that Russian chill before they even get inside, while the design elements on the set transport the audience to an expressionist version of 1938 Moscow. But despite Director Richard Henrich’s smooth transitions and the largely good acting, the performance still feels longer than the two-and-a-half hour runtime. Perhaps it’s the Russian setting—lengthiness is somewhat expected from a Russian story—but it seems more likely that John Hodge’s scenes repeating themselves are the culprit.
Spooky Action turns in a fine production with Collaborators. While the play will certainly resonate more with audiences familiar with Russian history and the work of Bulgakov, our upcoming election should provide some meaningful parallels—did someone say something about the banality of evil and the depressing futility of fighting corruption? While those parallels will not send you from the theater laughing, Collaborators will give you plenty of moments for contemplation.
1810 16th St. NW. $25–$35. (202) 248-0301. spookyaction.org.