Comedy and tragedy aren’t genres that blend together well. At least, that’s what one might think upon reading a description of Vern Thiessen’s Lenin’s Embalmers. But, after seeing this U of A Studio Theatre production (directed by MFA Directing candidate Alexander Donovan), it was clear these opposites could work together to create a funny and heart-wrenching play.
After the death of Lenin, Stalin and Krasin search for a way to immortalize the beloved revolutionary in the hopes that if Lenin transcends death, his ideas will as well. They task two Jewish scientists, Vladimir Vorobiov and Boris Zbarsky, with preserving the body so that it will last forever.
The first impression I got when going into the theatre was of the set. C. M. Zuby designed a set that effectively used the space in tandem with Sofia Lukie’s lighting design. Lighting transitions made the location of scene clear, from a lecture hall to the gulag, so there was no need for major set changes. When the play itself began, I knew I was in for a good time, as the tone quickly shifted from serious to light-hearted as the “corpse” of Lenin began to crack jokes.
I appreciated that the playwright took on the role of the production’s title character. Thiessen and the other actors had expert comedic timing, blending a mix of physical and verbal humor that hardly ever failed make me laugh. The two leads, Boris (Marguerite Lawler) and Vlad (Chris Pereira), remained dynamic and in sync with each other throughout both acts. For instance, speaking almost no dialogue, Lawler and Pereira convincingly and hilariously embalmed Lenin while keeping up a fast pace and high energy throughout the scene.
That said, it isn’t all running gags about communism and vodka. The play is based on a real time when one of the most brutal regimes on earth was just coming into being, and that aspect of history isn’t overlooked in the production. Even though I knew he was just an actor, I felt genuinely intimidated by Doug Mertz’s Stalin. When the lights shifted and the tone became more serious, I could feel myself holding my breath in the theatre, scared for what would happen to the characters onstage.
pUltimately, Lenin’s Embalmers is a bittersweet exploration of fame, power, and what we leave behind after we die. It might make you cry, and it will almost certainly make you laugh (which we all need after midterm season). So whether you’re a theatre lover, a history buff, or a fan of Soviet Anthem memes, this is the play for you.