From L to R: James Durham (Apparatchik 1), Hardee T. Lineham (Vladimir Vorobiov), Janine Theriault (Nadia) & Arne MacPherson (Apparatchik 2).
** (out of five)
Reviewed by James Karas
Playwright Vern Thiessen had a brilliant idea: write a play about the heroic embalming of the great leader of the people, Lenin. The outline of the story already existed in a book by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson called Lenin’s Embalmers and all he had to do was shape it into a play with black humour and a satirical look at Russia in 1924. He did that but unfortunately the result was not as happy as the original idea.
Thiessen’s play, Lenin’s Embalmers, opened in New York last March and the Harold Green Jewish Theatre has brought it to Toronto at the Al Green Theatre on Spadina Avenue. The limited virtues of the play are made worse by a creaky production directed by Geoffrey Brumlik.
After Lenin died in 1924, Stalin decided to preserve the body of the great leader forever and put it on display in Red Square, in the heart of Moscow. He rightly guessed that people would line up for hours to see the embalmed remains of the great man. The irony of making an almost holy relic of a dead Communist is simply astounding.
The problem was that no one knew how to preserve a corpse forever and the job was given to Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiev, two Jewish scientists. The advantage of giving the job to Jews, aside from the ability to do it, was that they are twice as easy to kill. There was no need to kill them right away, because in the hands of the two scientists the impossible became reality and they became national heroes for their achievement. Their success and influence, like that of many Russians of the day, was short-lived. Stalin shipped them off to a prison camp and they disappeared.
The play is or is intended to be fast-paced with people walking on and off the stage in a quick succession of scenes. The main plot of the embalming is supplemented with a subplot about Stalin’s relations with Trotsky who, as we know, went into exile and was murdered with an ice pick in Mexico.
The problem with the play and the production is that just about nothing works. Thiessen inserts a fair number of jokes in the play, probably a good sign that he had difficulty coming up with decent lines arising from the situation. Examples: What is the difference between capitalism and socialism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In socialism, it is the other way around. Lenin collects jokes that people tell about him; Stalin collects people who tell jokes about him. These may authentic examples of Russian humour of the time but like all jokes they need to be delivered properly. The delivery that Brumlik evinces simply kills the humour.
Near the end of the first act, we see the two scientists embalming the body of Lenin. They put gauzes on his face, pour liquids in a bathtub, put the body in the tub, and presumably spend days or weeks in the process. They do not say a word during the scene which seems to last as long as the actual embalming. The audience waits for something, anything, to happen but nothing does. Surely some dialogue laced with black humour would be á propos.
The scientists and some of the other characters are somewhat buffoonish, indeed budding comedians. Martin Julien as Zbarsky is almost a figure from a farce and Hardee Linehan plays the alcoholic Vorobiov without humour or drama. David Fox struts around as Stalin with little notion of the evil depravity of the man. Arne MacPherson’s Trotsky is not much better while Steve Ratzlaff plays the bureaucrat Krasin and has to deliver some awful dialogue. Harry Nelken is Lenin alive and dead. In the end the characters look as if they came out of a meat grinder. Janine Theriault, the only woman, plays several Nadias but the humour of her metamorphoses gets lost in the dross of the rest of the play and the production
The Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company is in its fourth year and has had a mixed bag of productions all dealing with the Jewish story. Lenin’s Embalmers will not be counted as one of its successes. Unfortunately, neither the play nor the production merits much praise.
The company’s next production will be Zero Hour, a play about Zero Mostel and it will open on March 26, 2011. It will be followed by To Life, a musical revue, next May.
Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen runs from October 30 to November 21, 2010 at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave. Toronto, Ontario. www.hgjewishtheatre.com/