Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre

don't miss this enthralling, darkly funny, thought-provoking drama through May 26

By: Apr. 19, 2024
Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
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Stalin’s Master Class is a music-filled drama at the Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles through May 26.  Beautifully executed and exquisitely crafted, this historical play by British playwright David Pownall was last performed at the Odyssey in the 1980s.  Stalin’s Master Class is a rare and intellectually delicious pleasure, not to be missed.

Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
John Kayton and Ilia Volok

Legendary Russian composers Dmitri Shostakovich (Randy Lowell) and Sergei Prokofiev (Jan Munroe) are summoned to an excruciating, awkward, hilarious, rather terrifying all-night brainstorming session with soldierly cultural bureaucrat henchman Andrei Zhdanov (John Kayton) and the amiable, vodka-swilling Soviet mass-murderer himself, Stalin (Ilia Volok).

Stalin’s Master Class is a play rich with striking, layered, fascinating performances.  John Kayton is invigorating, hilarious, and utterly immersive as the remorseless cultural minister, and I loved watching his total physicality.  Anyone who has dealt with managing artists or struggled to find sanity in committees might particularly enjoy the dark brutal humor of his performance. 

Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
Randy Lowell, Ilia Volok, Jan Munroe

Randy Lowell is performing strikingly as composer Shostakovich for the second time at the Odyssey, and as a music educator himself, also plays for himself on the piano, which is impressive.  Lowell finds lots of small moments to reveal the terror, conflict, and yearning of his character, while also finding many delightful moments of humor in the dread of what the committees and Stalin hold in store for him.  Jan Munroe’s superb performance as composer Prokofiev is a master class in subtlety and reaction.  There are so many moments in the play when Munroe’s simple, nonverbal gestures like closing his eyes, shaking his head, or adjusting his crane brought the entire audience into convulsing laughter.

Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
Ilia Volok

Ilia Volok’s genius performance as Stalin is nothing short of a revelation.  He somehow finds something quite human and layered and sympathetic to do with this capricious butcher dictator.  Volok is robustly physical, folksy, humorous, personable, sensitive, self-indulgent, moody, dark-humored, brooding, brutal, vengeful, pitiable, and terrifying all at once, by turns.  I was absolutely mesmerized watching Volok’s performance.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any actor go through quite so many moods and tones in just the span of a couple of minutes as he does in his strange Georgian poetic recitation, which earned a spontaneous, thunderous applause from the audience.

In the talk afterward, it was revealed Ukraine-born Ilia Volok lost both grandfathers to the ferocious and bloodthirsty politics of this era — one who died fighting in World War II, and another who was sentenced by Stalin for treason to a quarter century in prison (thankfully after Stalin’s death he was eventually freed).

Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
Jan Munroe and Ilia Volok

Director Ron Sossi founded the Odyssey Theatre in 1969 and this is the second time he has directed Stalin’s Master Class at the Odyssey.  Many things stand out about Sossi’s adventuresome, fiercely energetic, brilliant directing, especially the invigorating physicality of the actors, their vital movement and embodiment of the characters, and the way the cast comes together as one interconnected ensemble.

The music in the play is a delight, as is the scenic design by scenic designer Pete Hickock and props designer Jenine MacDonald.  The stagecraft instantly immerses us into a dusty, cavernous room, all the shabby and abandoned elegance of a former era, languishing away in the grim concrete world of Soviet Russia.

Review: STALIN'S MASTER CLASS at Odyssey Theatre
IIia Volok

Stalin’s Master Class is enthralling, darkly funny, awkward, and thought-provoking about the eternal tension of politics vs art, censorship vs thought, modern art vs people’s tastes, groupthink vs creativity, and popularity vs quality.  In a panicked  era of rising censorship lovingly administered by hysterical ideologies, not to mention the current leadership in Russia, the relevance of this modern day classic feels ever more vital and eerily current.

The Odyssey Theatre itself is absolutely a cultural treasure, distinguishing itself in the Los Angeles theatre scene with its provocative, avant garde, untamed, wildly entertaining new and classic productions.  Powerhouse producer Beth Hogan brings an exquisite, elevated sense of tone and texture and detail to everything she touches, a great intelligence and artistic aliveness infusing her work.  I find the Odyssey to be one of the most exciting places in LA.

Stalin's Master Class runs at the Odyssey Theatre through May 26.  Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd Los Angeles, CA 90025.  Free parking is available at the theatre.  Tickets are available by calling 310-477-2055 or by clicking the button below:


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