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A return of political satire as Moscow theatre toys with Putin's mind

Stage play melds brains of Vladimir Putin and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi in a farcical airing of greviences against the Russian leader.

MOSCOW // Two negatives make a positive when the brains of Vladimir Putin and Silvio Berlusconi are fused together in a satirical play that premiered this week in Moscow, just more than two weeks before a presidential election in Russia.

BerlusPutin, a Russian adaptation of Italian Nobel laureate Dario Fo's play The Double Headed Anomaly, is being performed by Moscow's Teatr.doc, an independent theatre company housed in a dusty cellar in the centre of the Russian capital.

The play satirises the real-life friendship between Mr Putin and Mr Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who was described by the Russian leader as "one of the greatest European politicians" after losing power during Italy's debt crisis.

It also reflects a revival of political satire in Russia since private grumbling about Prime Minister Putin's tightly controlled political system, known as "managed democracy", erupted into a public outcry after he and President Dmitry Medvedev announced plans last September to swap places.

BerlusPutin is a film script within a play. It veers chaotically between dark satire and acerbic real-time political commentary as an ageing actress, who has spent her advance, discovers she has been engaged to play Mr Putin's wife Lyudmila, estranged from the prime minister and living in a monastery.

The horrified actress, played by Yevdokia Germanova, learns her character must nurse her husband to health after a dual assassination attempt that left Mr Putin and Mr Berlusconi with half a brain each for surgeons to patch together in Mr Putin’s skull.

The bewildered convalescent – his part read by the director, played by actor Sergei Epishev – asks his wife to recount his life to him, only to hear a litany of misdeeds starting with his arrival at their first date an hour-and-a-half late.

The Russian playwright, Varvara Faer, adapted the play to include current events and focus on Mr Putin instead of Mr Berlusconi, but left the role of the estranged wife intact.

“What politicians do with their wives, they do to their countries,” said Ms Faer. “The wife of a politician can put up resistance to his actions.”

Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, did not immediately comment on the production.

In the play, Mr Putin reappears in the lower house of parliament, which he dissolves. He then calls new elections and re-opens a criminal investigation into his own actions.

“A minus and a minus,” says Lyudmila’s priest, also played by Epishev’s director, pondering the outcome of the brain transplant. “Two negatives have become a positive.”

Whatever insights the play offers into the nature of Mr Putin’s rule, it is a gleeful romp through the internet gags and media taboos of his 12 years in power.

Epishev, as Mr Putin, wears a foam rubber prosthesis of a naked torso with prominent muscles which the real Mr Putin is wont to display in macho pursuits intended to impress voters.

Epishev’s Mr Putin undergoes electric shock treatment offstage to deal with encroaching wrinkles and returns in a mask of Dobby the House Elf, a character from the “Harry Potter” films in whom internet pundits have found a similarity with Mr Putin.

Forced to improvise Lyudmila’s responses to her husband’s bewildered questions, the actress begins her performance reluctantly, then embraces her role with wicked glee until her conscience reasserts itself.
“I’m betraying all of my political principles!” Germanova shrieks. “I love Putin! I love Berlusconi!”

“If I were him, I’d think you were the one with the problem,” Epishev’s director replies.

“You have political schizophrenia. It’s as if you have one side of your brain to make bold political statements and the other to deny them.”

Her conflicting loyalties reflect a crisis of identity on Moscow’s theatre scene, where actors who stand up for Mr Putin earn scorn from their colleagues.

Among them is Germanova’s mentor, Oleg Tabakov, the head of the Moscow Art Theatre, co-founded by the pioneer of “method” acting, Konstantin Stanislavsky, and subject to the changing political winds as a state theatre in the Soviet era.

Tabakov told Radio Svoboda the theatre received more support from Putin than it did from any other Russian or Soviet leader.

“In all the Art Theatre’s 113 years ... not one of these men cared enough to ensure the theatre underwent technical upgrades,” Tabakov said.

“But presidential candidate Putin did.”

Teatr.doc’s low-tech basement, meanwhile, is festooned with placards from the recent wave of opposition protests.