Lenins Embalmers

Published: November 19th 2010
in Culture » Stage

Lenins Embalmers, photo by Steve Salnikowski

With Lenin’s Embalmers, playwright Vern Thiessen deserves credit for making some macabre subject matter surprisingly funny.


Based on a true story, Lenin’s Embalmers follows the two Jewish scientists, Boris Zbarsky (Martin Julien) and Vladimir Vorobiov (Hardee Lineham), who were chosen to embalm Lenin after his death in 1924. The stakes are almost impossibly high – the two face certain death if they fail – and understandably, both are reluctant to take on the task.


But they succeed – in an event that was hailed an unprecedented scientific “miracle” at the time – and enjoy a period of power and influence before they realize that though failure would have meant their demise, success won’t necessarily guarantee survival.


Though much of the play alternates between dark humour and downright wackiness (Lenin pops up from the dead to tell jokes more than a few times), the centerpiece is a spellbinding, 10-minute embalming scene at the end of Act I. In near silence – punctuated by a few gags and retches from the two embalmers – they extract organs, prepare a bathtub full of chemical solution, wash the body and dress it for preservation. It’s one of the more disgusting things I’ve seen onstage, and you can’t take your eyes off it for the entire spectacle.


David Fox has some goofy moments as Stalin, and Janine Theriault, as the all-purpose female in the cast, shows a sly sense of humour in her roles as Nadia 1, 2 and 3. But the play’s entertainment is undercut by the hammy, overdone acting jobs by most everyone else. They let the lamer jokes fall flat, the serious moments feel contrived and the wittier moments as if they haven’t reached their full potential.


The play flies by, probably helped along by the fact that the dialogue is spoken at a rapid-fire pace, and you don’t need to know a lot of the history to enjoy yourself. If anything, the hints of Soviet Jewish history are fascinating enough to make you want to learn more. But though the script manages the seemingly impossible task of making a story about embalming, death and betrayal lighthearted fun, the cringe-worthy acting jobs aren’t quite enough to fully bring it to life.




Lenin’s Embalmers runs until Nov. 21 at the Al Green Theatre, Miles Nadal JCC. For more information, visit www.hgjewishtheatre.com.

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

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