While you may have to wait to take your seat for Putin On Ice (that isn’t the real title of the show), the new production from Single Carrot Theatre and The Acme Corporation, the play begins as soon as you walk in the door.
Figures in black hoods wander the space, eliciting concerned glances and occasional giggles from those waiting in the lobby. As you fill out a survey about Russian president Vladimir Putin, the hooded figures may take you or your fellow theatergoers away, but don’t worry. They, like you, are free to leave at any time.
You finally enter the theater in the dark, and without a certain degree of open-mindedness and a good sense of humor, you may leave in the dark as well. But Putin On Ice, an act of collusion between Acme playwright Lola B. Pierson and Russian-born director Yury Urnov, isn’t here to make you comfortable. Running through October 7, this absurdist portrait of the man, the myth, and the legend of Putin brings you into a cult of personality that is definitely, maybe, not an actual cult.
Pierson spoke with us about Putin, working with Single Carrot, and how to approach this brand-new theater experience. But it’s most important to remember, again, that you are free to leave at any time.
This is kind of complicated production you’ve got. In the simplest terms, how would you describe this show?
I would describe it as a cult initiation during which you will experience the truth of Putin.
So simple then.
Yes! It's just like any other play you would see any other place. [Edit note: This, like much of the play, is a lie.]
What drew you to Putin as a subject?
It actually was sort of an indirect thing. So at Single Carrot, this was like years ago, we had this joke around the office that they were going to do an ice capade about Vladimir Putin, and then they started thinking like, oh, actually that's kind of a good idea. We should maybe do that. So they approached the director, Yury Urnov, who is Russian and lives here now, and he obviously was like, "Yes, I definitely want to do that!" And the way he explained it to me was, "Imagine if Trump was in power for 20 more years. That's what Putin is like for us." And that's really intense. We had worked on a show together before and it had gone really well. So he approached me about writing it.
What was it like working together with Urnov on this?
We met a lot and sort of just talked about things he thought and things I thought, and then I generated like 35 pages of raw text for him. No stage directions, no characters, just text. And that's what he walked into rehearsal the first day with. Then, over the course of rehearsals, people from Single Carrot and people from Acme and designers and actors all brought more and more stuff to the table. We would rewrite and turn things into scenes and like restructure.
We both believe really strongly in the fluidity of text in theater. Like I think theater is a visual medium and text is just one element. We actually cut a scene last night, so it'll be a different show tonight, which the cast are being very good sports about. It's kind of a cool, fun process to do that And I think we're lucky that both our brains sort of work pretty similarly and are pretty comfortable in the land of collage, which is what the piece is. It's kind of amazing how often he'll be like, "I think we need to cut this," and I'll be like, "Oh my God, I totally agree with you." It was highly collaborative.
So how have people been reacting to Putin On Ice so far?
It’s been totally varied. Most people I think are like getting the joke. You don't really have to have any prior knowledge of Putin to understand anything. So most people I think think it's really funny. We did get one review and it felt like the guy just like totally got it, and then we got another review and the reviewer was like, "I'm a pretty intelligent person but I still don't get it," which we've actually been using as our pull quote and sending out to our newsletter and stuff. I mean there's a lot of spectacle in the show, so you can engage with it on that level if no other level. But I think people have been into it and gotten it, gotten what we're going for, which has been kind of a nice surprise.
Can you explain why the show has nine different Putins?
They're different facets of representations of Putin. There are all these different images of Putin that I think are very consciously being put out into the world. There's the one that's like, oh, look at him snuggling with animals. He's such a caring person. And it's more adopting those personas than it is actually embracing Putin as a person.
The thing we've been talking about a lot, which obviously Yury has more knowledge than I do, is that we actually have no idea what's true about Putin at all. One of his top advisors was a modern art guy, and he's really into collage and manufacturing meaning, and he's just putting out any information that he can about Putin, whether it's like good or bad or anything. It's just anything at all, so no one can trust anything. Russian propaganda is so sophisticated, right? It's this manufacturing of propaganda so that you don't even know what you're supposed to believe. And that's the point.
You worked together with Single Carrot on this show. How’s the collaboration been?
It's been awesome. We have a lot of designers on our team, Yury's an Acme member and I'm an Acme member. So a lot of what would normally be the driving artistic team was Acme people, but the actors, and Single Carrot has more actors, they were actually pretty involved in the creation of the process. And Single Carrot is just a bigger organization, so they have staff and structure and more people. I think the barrier to go somewhere new is very high, and they have been extremely gracious about opening their home to us like nine lunatics and have been totally nice to us.
One last thing. Do you have any advice for people coming to this show?
They should bring cash. And an open heart and open mind.