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David Fox as Stalin and Steven Ratzlaff as Krasin in “Lenin’s Embalmers.”
Photo by Chronic Creative.


Alissa Schachter


Governor General’s award winning playwright delivers zany romp through slice of Soviet history

By Alissa Schachter, October 19, 2010

“Lenin’s Embalmers” mines the confluence between politics and science and comes up with a highly entertaining dark comedy.  The Canadian premier of Winnipeg born Vern Thiessen’s production opened to a near capacity crowd last Thursday, kicking off the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre’s 23rd season with plenty of laughs.  

The play is set in 1924 Soviet Russia following Lenin’s death.  It is a fictional work which loosely chronicles the true story of two reluctant Jewish scientists, Boris Zbarsky (Toronto’s Martin Julien) and Vladimir Vorobiov (Hardee T. Lineham, also from Toronto) conscripted by Stalin to preserve Lenin’s body in hopes of keeping the dream of the Russian Revolution alive.  They succeed in embalming Lenin, which represents a significant scientific breakthrough at the time.  Fame, fortune and prestige are heaped on Boris and Vlad, before they too fall victims to one of Stalin’s innumerable purges. 

Early in the play, the characters “break the fourth wall” and introduce themselves directly to the audience.  Even Lenin rises from the dead periodically to tell a joke or philosophize.  Other times, the characters address the audience in unison, aptly reflecting the collective spirit of the Bolshevik era.  Thiessen’s manifold creative uses of humour counterbalance the more sinister aspects of this historical period.  The same joke is told at the beginning and at the end of the play; the first time it elicits chuckles, but the second time it resonates with meaning.  The two state Apparatchiks (James Durham and Arne MacPherson) who are dispatched to do Stalin’s dirty work come across as spoofs of themselves, as if the playwright is winking at the audience and sharing a private joke about the absurdity of the situation.  

Lenin’s actual embalming is enacted in a long and bizarrely captivating scene, which is silent save for the eerie background music.  The image of the large glass jars holding Lenin’s preserved organs is oddly beautiful and lingers long after the play ends.   When it dawns on Boris and Vlad that they will need to re-embalm Lenin every six months to fulfill Stalin’s wishes, they celebrate as if they have realized the Soviet dream; Boris does a little jig and cries out in glee, “Aha!  A job for life!”  

The play boasts an unusually large cast of eight, half of whom are local actors.  All the performances are solid.  Julien conveys Boris’s sycophantic nature through his energetic and fluid physicality, whereas Lineham’s woodenness embodies Vlad’s intransigence.  Janine Theriault nimbly alternates between her roles as two different Nadias, bringing a seductive noir quality to the production.  David Fox’s Stalin is equally bumbling and menacing, while Lenin (Harry Nelken) radiates serenity and thoughtfulness from the afterlife.  WJT veteran, Steven Ratzlaff gives a straight performance as Stalin’s dutiful right hand man, Krasin.

The Director (Geoffrey Brumlik) keeps up the momentum throughout the two hour plus running time, and adroitly utilizes the versatile set.    

The set, costumes and lighting work together to produce the drab and austere ambiance emblematic of the Soviet era.  Particularly arresting is the skilful use of music and sound effects to create tension and set the tone.  

The mood darkens toward the end of the play as the zero sum game that Boris and Vlad are entangled in moves towards its inevitable conclusion.  

“Lenin’s Embalmers” is a quirky and original production by a home grown talent that is well worth taking in.

“Lenin’s Embalmers ” runs through October 24 at the Berney Theatre.  Tickets are $28, $25 for seniors and $12 for students. 

Alissa Schacter is a Winnipeg writer.  She has worked as a lawyer and in economic development and policy.

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