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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though far from funny, for screen and stage scribes the horrors of totalitarian regimes like Stalin's can best be dramatized within the framework of a black comedy (think the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard movie To Be or Not to Be and The Producers). Case in point: Vern Thiessen's Lenin's Embalmers which is currently being given a world premiere at Ensemble Studio Theatre. It features a terrific cast and more elaborate than usual staging with several, cleverly maneuvered sliding doors to turn the EST stage into various locales including an atmospheric Red Square.
As with his his excellent Einstein's Gift (review), Thiessen has once again used actual events and characters. The event here is the embalming of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 ordered by Stalin as a means to "immortalize communism" and keep its spirit alive. The embalmers enlisted to undertake the task are Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov. It took these real life scientists almost four months to perform this never before achieved scientific "miracle." Thiessen follows fact in showing them to be amply rewarded with money and power but in the paranoid regime with its backstabbing politics such power and influence can only be short lived, especially since Boris and Vlad are are Jewish.
Casting Peter Maloney as the Red who refuses to be dead immediately establishes that this is history seen through a comic lens, with hints of its darkness in the prescient joke with which Maloney's Lenin initiates the action. Thiessen spins out that action with some genuinely hilarious and theatrical scenes in which the various characters introduce themselves.
It is Stalin's (an amusingly cartoonish Richmond Hoxie) right-hand Comrade Krasin (James Murtaugh doing mealy-mouthed hanger-on with panache) who seeks out Boris (Scott Sowers) and tells him he's been chosen to attempt the embalming now that Lenin is dead from "a stroke, perhaps brought on by a large bullet." With failure not an option (unless you want to be shot) Boris seeks out Vlad (Zach Grenier) a colleague who's no longer a colleague because he thinks Boris stole his research.
While seven of the eight actors are men, the one female, Polly Lee, gets to play three different women, all named Nadia (Nadia1, Lenin's wife; Nadia2, Boris's wife; Nadia3, a brilliant young scientist and the womanizing Vlad's lover). As played by Lee, t hose Nadia's add much to the farcical proceedings. Good as the entire ensemble, which also includes Stephen Boyer and Michael Louis Wells as two Communist police agents (with Wells also taking a turn as Trotsky) is, it's the superb Sowers and Grenier who are the linchpins of Thiessen's conceit.
Thiessen can't be blamed for shifting from madcap black humor to heavy duty tragedy, especially given his own history of family members who lived through Stalin's reign of terror. But his trying to have it both ways makes Lenin's Embalmer a somewhat schizophrenic enterprise that turns Lenin's joke into a poignant declaration that he's neither a myth or a god or the hero of this story. Actually, the final joke is on Stalin for while Lenin remains embalmed for posterity, Nikita Khrushchev buried him like the ordinary but extraordinarily evil man he was.