Vern Thiessen Brings 'Lenin's Embalmers' to Life

Published: October 31st 2010
in Culture » Stage

Martin Julien (Boris Zbarsky) & Hardee T. Lineham (Vladimir Vorobiov)

Vern Thiessen has always been surrounded by Jewish culture. The Governor General’s Award-winning playwright may not be Jewish himself, but he grew up in Winnipeg and now lives in New York, where it’s “particularly palpable,” he says. “I have a lot of Jewish friends, and my girlfriend and I often get invited to Shabbat dinner and the High Holidays and stuff like that, so we end up celebrating a lot of the Jewish holidays. I wish I was Jewish! What can I say?” he adds with a laugh.


That intimacy with Jewish life came in handy when he wrote his play Einstein’s Gift, which won the Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition in 1999 and then the Governor General’s Award in 2003. And it came in handy again when he began work on Lenin’s Embalmers, the story of Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov, two Jewish scientists who were chosen to embalm Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924. The play was commissioned by the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Theatre Studio in New York City two and a half years ago, where it opened to rave reviews in March, and is now receiving its Canadian premiere in a co-production between the Harold Green Jewish Theatre and Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.


“It’s a very personal play for me, because my parents grew up in Soviet Russia,” Thiessen says. “Both my grandfathers were taken to the gulag, and one never returned. So the experience of these two Jewish scientists have in the play of dealing with this oppressive regime is actually very parallel to my own family experience.”


The play is inspired by the book Lenin's Embalmers by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, but Thiessen takes an unconventional approach to the story of two men who are tasked with achieving a scientific ‘miracle’ – and face possible death whether or not they are successful. “I thought, there’s no way I could do a story about embalming that’s going to be completely and utterly serious,” he says. “It has to be a comedy or at least a dark comedy, which is what I settled on.” Though much of the play is meant to be funny – Thiessen describes it as a “weird, wacky play [that’s] very hard to pinhole" – he took a different tone with the 10-minute embalming scene at the end of Act I. “There’s a real switch in tone in the play, where I just knew, having spent time working with an embalming consultant, that that was something I couldn’t make fun of.”


He spoke to his consultant extensively about the scientific and artistic aspects of embalming, as well as the human and spiritual nature of it. But he decided against trying to witness a real embalming. “I decided to leave that a mystery because I thought, you know what, I’m probably just going to faint!” he says with a laugh.


Thiessen currently has four new plays in the works (including one, Saving Grace, that features a number of Jewish characters and was commissioned by none other than Leonard Nimoy), and has seen his work produced as far away as Germany and South Korea. And with accolades building, Lenin’s Embalmers is showing the potential to travel just as far. The play has been optioned for translation into both Polish and Hebrew, for Warsaw and Tel Aviv productions, respectively – and it’s the latter that has Thiessen particularly excited. “When the translator phoned me in New York and said ‘I want to do this in Hebrew,’ I was just over the moon,” he says. “The Jewish community has been so good to me over the years. Even when I saw the Hebrew translation – it was a very moving thing for me. That would be a huge event in my life, to have a show in Israel. I’ll be on a plane so fast.”




Lenin’s Embalmers runs until Nov. 21 at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC. For more information, visit For more information about Vern Thiessen, visit

Related articles: (stage, vern thiessen, lenins embalmers, winnipeg jewish theatre, harold green jewish theatre)

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