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Theater Review: Stalin’s Master Class

Jan Munroe in Stalin’s Master Class. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Oh, those crazy dictators! They not only think they know how best to run a country but that they’re qualified to give advice to virtually any expert on any subject.

The experts in the case of Stalin’s Master Class are Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich (Randy Lowell) and Sergei Prokofiev (Jan Munroe). Dictator Joseph Stalin (Ilia Volok) is unhappy with the approaches to composing taken by the USSR’s premier musical geniuses and has some dictatorial artistic suggestions.

Stalin’s lackey/enforcer/Minister of Culture Andrei Zhdanov (John Kayton) starts out demanding fealty on behalf of his boss, but soon enough Stalin himself appears to make it clear that he’s in charge.

Ilia Volok in Stalin’s Master Class. Photo by Jenny Graham.

The premise in this show, directed by Odyssey artistic director Ron Stossi, is an imagined 1948 meeting at the Kremlin, during a conference of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party dedicated to music and attended by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. Stalin demands that the two return with a message that Soviet music should be harmonious and traditional, not dissonant.

Stalin sees music as important as agriculture, as it represents Soviet superiority and culture. Anything experimental or not to his tastes (which run toward Georgian folk music) justifies banishment to Siberia. How can art flourish in such an environment?

Randy Lowell in Stalin’s Master Class. Photo by Jenny Graham.

With fascism on the rise around the world and a specter even in our own country, a work that imagines the oppression of artists is timely, but Stalin’s Master Class is ultimately dissatisfying. Stalin’s mood swings are so severe as to suggest mental illness, and verge on the farcical. He shifts instantly between chummy hospitality and violent rage, from compliments and concern to smashing 78 records and threatening murder. In between are forced vodka toasts “To the power of the human heart!” These emotional shifts are jarring and sometimes hard to follow, as are storylines truncated and overlapping, cruel and comedic. The sound of walking over all that broken bits of shellac is especially unpleasant.

Stalin’s Master Class dates back to 1986, and illustrates how the pacing of theatrical works has changed. Today’s new plays are more likely to be 80-100 minutes without intermission; Stalin runs more than two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Removing redundancies could trim the length and make for a tighter, more engaging experience. More live music would also serve to reinforce the play’s message, and take advantage of the extraordinary artistry of pianist Nisha Sujatha Arunasalam, who plays behind the scenes for the musicians.

John Kayton and Ilia Volok in Stalin’s Master Class. Photo by Jenny Graham.

Stalin’s Master Class runs through May 26 at the Odyssey, 2055 S Sepulveda Blvd, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. (Fridays are pay-what-you-can and offer complimentary wine and snacks with the cast after the show.) Tickets are $35 and are available here.

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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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