Embalmed in Chemistry

david fox and steven ratzlaff
photo by steve salnikowski (chronic creative)
When I was studying 20th Century History in grade twelve I developed an entertaining system that helped me contextualize and simplify the information I was reading in my textbook. I would imagine that all the countries in the world were kids interacting on a playground, where “Germany” kept beating up “Poland” and “Russia” was the two-faced kid who pretended to be friendly and play nice with everyone but who ultimately only looked out for himself, especially if a fight broke out and “Canada,” younger brother of “Great Britain” spent a great deal of time both idolizing and comparing itself not only to its far more popular sibling, but also to its charming and vivacious, albeit slightly conceited, older cousin “America”. Vern Thiessen’s play Lenin’s Embalmers, produced by the Harold Green Jewish Theatre and running at the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre until November 21st, 2010, reminded me that infusing our history with this sort of humour and dramatic irony not only makes the learning of it more gratifying, but it also can become a wry commentary on the absurdity of past political infrastructures and emancipates specific moments concerning relationships and overall ambiances from the complex and intricate historical web of facts, dates and technical minutiae.
Lenin’s Embalmers is a work of fiction, but its basic storyline about two Russian Jewish scientists who were chosen to embalm the body of Vladimir Lenin after his death in 1924 is historically accurate and based loosely on the book of the same name by Ilya Zbarsky and Samuel Hutchinson, translated by Barbara Bray. Thiessen chooses to tell this story in a very Brechtian way, with characters speaking directly to the audience, their lines overlapping one another with a driving rhythm amid the ominous and tumultuous world of the Russian Revolution on the brink of instability as power is seized by Joseph Stalin, that director Geoffrey Brumlik has created with the help of Guido Tondino, Victoria Zimski and Danny Carroll. As the fourth wall is continually being broken, the audience is simultaneously offered a joke or witty one liner, which helps to humanize the conditions of this time in history and reflects humour’s connection to suffering and the power it is able to give to the oppressed, while also creating a Verfremdungseffekt, or Alienation Effect, from whence we are encouraged to think critically about these characters and the political circumstances out of which they have been immortalized, or, in the case of the two embalmers, nearly forgotten.
Indeed, Lenin’s Embalmers is a play very much concerned with the concept of preservation, not only of the body of one particular man, but, even more significantly, the preserving of ideas, memories and Stalin’s desire to perpetuate a myth of Lenin as a God, one who would always remain visible and vital to the lives of his people, in the hopes that upon his own inevitable death he would be remembered, worshipped and grieved over in the same way. In this way, Lenin, played by the very graceful and charming Harry Nelken, weaves throughout the play like a ghost, truly unable to leave the world from whence he has departed despite his desire to rest in peace.
Circling around Lenin under the guise of two secret police officers is the cyclical regime of Joseph Stalin, where his rules and logistics of government are changed often and by whim, but the result, of terror fed by paranoia and the purging of resistance in even its most innocent forms, remains the same. David Fox gives a chilling and formidable performance as Stalin, capturing perfectly the terrifying unpredictability of his nature as well as his unwavering and absolute power over all aspects of life and death. Fox has a particularly incredible moment upon learning of the death of Trotsky (by his own orders in a deliciously terse telegram to an assassin in Mexico) where he simultaneously reflects on the atrocity he has committed while also savouring the favourable consequences of his greatest threat suddenly being removed from his shadow. Fox holds the audience entirely captive for every moment he is onstage, filling each silence with the potential for bloodshed.
Janine Theriault plays a myriad of different women, all named Nadia, which suggests that, like the cyclical nature of revolution, perhaps all women, whether ambitious intellectuals with a thirst for scientific knowledge or a spendthrift wife eager to take on a lover, are relegated to the same story in Stalin’s world, as the keepers or betrayers of their men’s secrets, but without the freedom to become their own unique protagonist.
Our protagonists for the evening are surely, as the play’s title suggests, Lenin’s two embalmers, the jolly, opportunistic lover of society Boris Zbarsky, played by Martin Julien, and the more reclusive, morose, hardworking Vladimir Vorobiov, played by Hardee Lineham, who has a genius for science and a weakness of vodka. Julien and Lineham have unmistakable chemistry and create a friendship which runs thicker than blood, but is also seeped in deep rooted resentment, jealousy, bitterness and betrayal. These dynamics make Boris and Vladimir simultaneously magnetic and volatile which is fascinating to behold. It is interesting also that, as with Stalin’s duplicitous stance on anti-Semitism, it is left entirely ambiguous whether the fact that Zbarsky and Vorobiov were Jewish prompted their eventual demise, or if they were simply becoming too big for their britches and therefore a threat to the dictator’s supreme control.
Geoffrey Brumlik’s direction is predominantly brisk, with all the actors remaining in almost constant movement on and off the stage building the momentum as Stalin accumulates his power, yet, perhaps the most interesting part of the play is the choice to depict the lengthy embalming process and to do so in complete silence. For a society obsessed with forensics, glued so often to television programs like CSI, this sequence is captivating simply in its realism and its detail; but I was also struck by how natural the silence was as the two scientists were working. This became a bit forced, I felt, when something went wrong and the silence turned for a moment into more of a mime, but it settled itself nicely once the task was completed and Julien was able to communicate a monologue’s worth of words with the simple rise of his eyebrows.
As a teenager I found it helpful to deflate the mammoth egos of history and to impose my seventy years of foresight onto the events of the past so I could understand them on terms that I understood. I feel that Thiessen, through his humour and his wit, does the same with the characters of Lenin’s Embalmers. In thrusting them into our laps, commenting on their own story as though watching their circumstances through the eyes of the twenty first century, we become both oddly connected and yet also set apart, as though we are all spirits, like Lenin, staring down at the bodies of the former figures of humanity searching for a laugh and striving to remember.

Lenin’s Embalmers plays at the Al Green Theatre at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (750 Spadina Avenue (at Bloor Street)) until November 21st, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call 416.366.7723 or visit www.hgjewishtheatre.com.

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