Actor of Many Parts: Joseph Carlson in ‘Kleptocracy’

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Actor Joe Carlson has several parts in "Kleptocracy" at Arena Stage.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.”

Those lines are, of course, from William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the late-stage and brilliant play considered by many to be a kind of valedictory by the bard as well as a poetic description of the human condition.

As was often the case with Shakespeare, who was a solid-core man of the theater and the greatest playwright ever, the lines resonate with actors, then and today, as an almost perfect description of their life, worth and experience in the world.

They’re a pretty fair description of the life and times and work of Loudon County raised actor and theatrical, if you will, Joseph Carlson who in  his time —so far—has played many parts indeed.

Carlson has added to his resume with his performance(s) and work in the keenly contemporary, even though set in the past, production of “Kleptocracy,” the new play by Kenneth Lin, which examines the beginnings of the political rise of Vladimir Putin and his struggle for power with the oligarchs of Russia. It is a struggle which has played out on the world stage and has echoed increasingly more loudly in our own time along with our raw-nerved American politics. It’s a play that, no doubt, from its beginning Jan. 18 to its last performances on Sunday, Feb. 24  at Arena’s Mead Center for American Theater at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. maintains and retains the quality of slipperiness and elusiveness for the actors people on stage and those watching in the audience.

Of “Kleptocracy,” Artistic Director Molly Smith remarks that it “is the most dangerous play at Arena Stage this season. Dangerous because playwright Kenneth Lin has taken us right into the heart of  greed, manipulation, and the rise of the wealthy and Putin in Russia in the ’90s and the ’00s. It’s a fascinating prism through which to examine our relationship with Russia in the United States right now.”

How pertinent and up to the minute is “Kleptocracy”? Look no further than this week or next, when the Mueller investigation is scheduled to wind down, when the fate of its contents about Russia’s alleged attempt to influence the 2016 election will emerge or not.

The cast features Max Woertendyke as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the leader of the oligarchs after the fall of the Soviet Union and his relationship with a fast-climbing, power-seeking former KGB official named Vladimir Putin, played by Christopher Geary.

For Carlson, who has over time done notable and diverse work all over the Washington region, in D.C., Virginia and Maryland, “Kleptocracy” fits in line with his idea of theater and what’s unique and important about it. And if you look at his record of performance, it also speaks volumes about his choices as an actor and participation in various projects.

“I like plays that speak the times we live in,” Carlson said. And “Kleptocracy” surely does that—just look at the headlines, the things we think about and talk about and debate on a daily basis. I think theater should be meaningful, to ourselves and to the audience.”

Carlson has at least four different parts in this production—“Leonid Nevzlin, Interpreter, Kuchma, Other and Fight Captain.”

Being in “Kleptocracy” at Arena marks yet another homecoming for Carlson, one much appreciated by him. He had what one critic described as a “star turn,” playing a conniving President Andrew Jackson in Mary Catherine Nagle’s brash play, “Sovereignty,” part of the Women’s Theater Festival, about Jackson’s tragic treatment of the Cherokee nation. The play was part of Arena’s 2018 season and marked yet another loud return on the part of Carlson to the Washington theater scene, which he loves.

“I especially like coming back to Arena,” he said. “I think Molly Smith is an American hero for the way she encourages — not just with words — new work, young actors and professionals, new plays and new ideas in theater.”

Carlson seems totally engaged in the world where he practices his art, whether it be a starring role  in the electric and thrilling production “Colossal” at Olney (a Helen Hayes nomination) or as part of an ensemble or fight master, if you will.

There’s a sense of commitment—emotional and artistic, when you hear him talk about a theater of social justice, about meaningful theater, about the every-day and every night newness of theater and its audiences. Carlson has performed off-Broadway and in the play “uncle tom: deconstructed” with the Conciliation  Project, a social theater company where he has been an ensemble member, director and facilitator for over ten years. The project’s stated ambition—to foster dialogue about a racism and intersectional oppression in America in order to repair its damaging legacy—certainly echoes recent events in Virginia, and the political and cultural debates around them.

“The job I have, you have to love it for all the times — for when you know you are reaching your audience and the times when it’s silent,” he said. “I like to do work that is timely, in the times and in the moment.”

Carlson speaks seriously but sounds passionate, even eager, about theater its own self. He had a small part in Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which fits with his interest but was also exciting to be a part of. He’s done television and lots and lots of theater in the rich environment of Washington theater.

Look at the record, the plays, a string of intent and intense theatrical pearls, with Arena, Round House, Scena and a host of others. Here’s a sampling:

“Nat Turner in Jerusalem,” Forum Theater Silver Spring; “Someone Is Going to Come,” Scena; “Antony and Cleopatra,” Brave Spirits Theatre, the Lab at Convergence, Alexandria; “Antigone Now,” Scena Theatre; “The Night Alive,” Round House, Bethesda; “The Big Friendly Giant,” Imagination Stage, playing a bloodbottler; “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Constellation Theatre at Source; “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and “Lysistrata,” four at the wordless Synetic Theater Company; “Voodoo Macbeth,” American Century Theater, Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, and a splendid production of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” at Scena and Atlas Theater.

That’s Joseph Carlson, man and theater man of many parts.

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