Stalin’s Master Class Review – Uncle Joe Tells All

Ilia Volok, Randy Lowell, John Kayton, and Jan Munroe in STALIN'S MASTER CLASS - Photo by Jenny Graham
Spread the love

Penned by David Pownall, STALIN’S MASTER CLASS arrived on Broadway in 1986 receiving a tepid review from the New York Times. In 1986, the show premiered on the West Coast at the Odyssey Theatre directed by Ron Sossi, where it fared better among critics. Thereafter, the play was rarely produced – until 2024, when the Odyssey Theatre revisits STALIN’S MASTER CLASS, again directed by Ron Sossi. As Sossi recently noted, the events in the play “…never happened in reality, but…very well could have…Pownall’s play was once called ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff’ for tyrants and artists. Instead of a game of ‘get the guests’, where we have ‘get the composers!’” 

John Kayton and Ilia Volok – Photo by Jenny Graham

The time is 1948, and the place is Moscow, the jewel of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Joseph Stalin (Ilia Volok) and his cultural minister Andrei Zhdanov (John Kayton) have decided to have a cozy little meet-up with Dmitri Shostakovich (Randy Lowell) and Sergei Prokofiev (Jan Munroe), two world-renowned composers. It seem that Stalin has taken issue with their musical style, which he considers overly Western, formalist, and anti-Soviet. As the terrified artists tremble and try to fade into the woodwork, Stalin plies them with vodka as he and Zhdanov attempt to show these upstarts the error of their ways. When it appears that Stalin’s “logic” may be falling on deaf ears, the U.S.S.R. leader’s approach becomes more forceful and less amiable – much to the horror of the wide-eyed artists. But happily Stalin has a solution to the conundrum: why not compose a truly Russian piece, a folk cantata, based on one of Stalin’s favorite poems? While vodka flows freely, the quartet hovers around the piano composing the “song of the year.”

Randy Lowell and Ilia Volok – Photo by Jenny Graham

As Sossi noted, the play is a fictional account – but not an unreasonable scenario in a country where every aspect of life and art were under the control of one powerful man. Meticulously directed with an eye to both the genuine fear and the dark satire of the tale, Sossi achieves a chilling but also ridiculous peek into the Soviet Union of Stalin’s day. The audience may have difficulty deciding whether to laugh or cry as the story proceeds. Sossi is ably assisted by a superb ensemble cast led by Ukrainian born-and-bred Volok as Stalin, his merry side-kick Kayton as Zhdanov, and the pair of trembling composers brought to life by Munroe and Lowell. As an added bonus, Lowell plays his own piano while an invisible Nisha Sujatha Arunsalam doubles as pianist for the other members of the cast. Black comedy? In one amusing interchange, Shostakovich is accused of being morose most of the time. Perhaps his surroundings and his country’s leadership might have something to do with his mood?

Ilia Volok, Randy Lowell, and Jan Munroe – Photo by Jenny Graham

Pete Hickok’s scenic design is appropriately Bolshevik-opulent, while Mylette Nora’s costumes reflect the life and times of the group. Jackson Funke’s lighting and Christopher Moscatiello’s sound are used to advantage as music and Communism are blended in a strange soup indeed.

Randy Lowell, Ilia Volok, and Jan Munroe – Photo by Jenny Graham

STALIN’S MASTER CLASS is definitely a thought-provoking look at the juxtaposition of life, art, and politics. It is also an intriguing what-if in a country where art and politics don’t seem to mix. The blend of history, musical genius, and strong-man power also proves to be entertaining and – at times – even bizarre and downright nuts.

Jan Munroe and Ilia Volok – Photo by Jenny Graham

STALIN’S MASTER CLASS runs through May 26, 2024, with performances at 8 p.m. on Wednesdays (4/17 and 5/15 only), at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025. Tickets range from $20 to $40 on Saturdays and Sundays; Fridays are Pay-What-You-Can (reservations open online and at the door starting at 5:30 p.m.) For information and reservations, call 310-477-2055 Ext. 2 or go online.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.