Putin Criticizes Play During A Surprise Visit to a Theater

He drives trucks and trains. He's sailed on a submarine, flown in a fighter jet, rode in a strategic bomber. He holds a black belt in judo.

Now add theater critic to President Vladimir Putin's ever-widening public persona.

Putin and his wife, Lyudmila, paid a surprise visit to a Moscow theater on Sunday to view a production of the 19th-century Russian comedy "Woe from Wit."

State-run television said the president and the first lady -- who were met with a standing ovation by theatergoers impatiently waiting for the play to begin -- caught the audience and the cast by surprise.

Afterward, Putin chatted with the leading actors over tea and cookies. He gave them pointers about their staging of the popular play, which satirizes Moscow society after the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century.

"Why did you show [the main character] crying at the very beginning?" he asked the cast. "One gets the impression of him as a weak person. He's a strong man. He withstands everything that's there. You showed him sniveling."

"You're correct and I'm just glad that the actor has heard this," the play's director, Rimas Tuminas, responded.

Putin corrected him, saying: "The actor has nothing to do with this. He's done what you told him."

Putin then said the play still has relevance some 150 years later. He pointed to a scene when the lead character criticizes fellow Russians who fall all over themselves to adopt Western customs.

"This is a particular lesson for the new members of the European Union," he said to laughter. "I'm joking, I'm joking."

The critical comments notwithstanding, state-run television was quick to add after his commentary: "His review was neither good nor bad, but was just very interesting for Putin because the production produced many emotions for him."