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Home / Life! / Entertainment / Politics and art collide in ‘Stalin’s Master Class’ at the Odyssey

Politics and art collide in ‘Stalin’s Master Class’ at the Odyssey

by Staff
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Politics collide with art when Joseph Stalin and Soviet cultural minister Andrei Zhdanov summon composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich to the Kremlin for a vodka-fueled “music lesson.” Odyssey Theatre Ensemble founding artistic director Ron Sossi directs “Stalin’s Master Class,” a comic, music-filled ride by British playwright David Pownall. 

Can artistic expression be forced to conform to political ideology? In this darkly funny satire, Pownall imagines a chilling encounter — Prokofiev (Jan Munroe) and Shostakovich (Randy Lowell) are subjected to the rant and bullying of Stalin (Ilia Volok) and Zhdanov (John Kayton), who accuse the composers of anti-democratic, “formalist” musical tendencies that are alien to the Soviet people and their artistic tastes. “Music that could make a whole population sick!” Post-war Soviet society may be the backdrop for “Stalin’s Master Class,” but the themes raised about the relationship between art and politics remain universally relevant.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the nature of so-called ‘evil people,’” explains Sossi. “What makes them tick? Do they see themselves as evil, or do they see themselves as doing the right thing? In ‘Master Class,’ you see a side of Stalin that is very patriotic, a man who wants to resuscitate his country. He wants to get these guys to write music that is more accessible and comforting to the sad survivors of the devastating World War, the children and the old people. The play is very funny, which some might find disturbing, and there’s a lot of great music, all played live. Get ready for a big musical surprise at the end!”

Pownall explained that, in writing “Master Class,” he wanted to convey the feelings of horror and mockery he felt after reading the minutes of the 1948 Moscow Composers’ Conference held by the Communist party. Although the meeting imagined in the play never actually took place, the composers’ conference and other events make the evening’s goings-on only “too depressingly real.”

David Pownall (1938–2022) was an award-winning British novelist and playwright who had over 80 radio plays broadcast on the BBC and worldwide, and his work for stage has been produced in many countries throughout the world. During his extensive career, Pownall wrote in a number of different mediums including 13 novels. Written in 1983, “Master Class” was his best-known play, transferring from the Leicester Haymarket to the Old Vic and then to Wyndham’s in the West End. His book, “Writing Master Class,” is an account of the inception and development of the play, interspersed with twists of his authorial life-story.

Performances of Stalin’s Master Class take place on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. from April 13 through May 26. There will be two additional weeknight performances, on Wednesday, April 17 and Wednesday, May 15, each at 8 p.m. Three previews on Wednesday, April 10; Thursday, April 11; and Friday, April 12 also begin at 8 p.m. Post-performance discussions are scheduled on Wednesday, April 17; Friday, April 26; Wednesday, May 15; and Sunday, May 5. Every Friday is “Wine Night”: enjoy complimentary wine and snacks and mingle with the cast after the show.

Tickets to performances range from $20 to $40 on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Performances on Fridays are Pay-What-You-Can (reservations open online and at the door starting at 5:30 p.m.). Previews are priced at $15. The Odyssey Theatre is located at 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles, 90025

For more information and to purchase tickets, call (310) 477-2055 or go to OdysseyTheatre.com.

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