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Lenin's Embalmers

A top-notch ensemble enlivens Vern Thiessen's mostly merry fantasy about life in the early days of the USSR.

Scott Sowers, James Murtaugh, and Zach Grenier
in Lenin's Embalmers
(© Gerry Goodstein)
If George S. Kaufman and Morrie Riskind had been given the opportunity to write a play about the process of preserving communist leader Vladimir Lenin's body for the ages, they might have written something like Vern Thiessen's Lenin's Embalmers, a mostly merry fantasy about life in the early days of the USSR, now playing at Ensemble Studio Theatre.

A top-notch ensemble gamely delivers the initial froth of this piece, which has been extrapolated from the real-life events outlined in Ilya Zabarky and Samuel Hutchinson's book Lenin's Embalmers, as Stalin (played as a dangerous and preening dimwit by Richmond Hoxie) embarks on a crusade to have Lenin's corpse embalmed for future generations. As such a feat has never been accomplished, though, there's some question about how the goal will be accomplished; ultimately, an aide, Krasin (a shrewdly sycophantic turn from James Murtagh), suggests they turn to two scientists, who were once congenial colleagues, Boris (Scott Sowers) and Vlad (Zach Grenier). It takes some maneuvering -- which includes plenty of vodka -- to get both men on board for the project, particularly as they know that, if they fail, they'll be executed.

Vlad's superior scientific acumen -- a constant despite his drinking which is excessive even by Russian standards and womanizing -- is complemented to perfection by Boris' ability to milk the system for exorbitant fees and perks. They triumph, but after their success, greed, the anti-Semitism of their superiors, professional jealousy, and backroom politicking combine to ensure the men's downfall.

It's a tribute to both Thiessen's writing, which frequently gives a comic nod to the presentationalism of socialist theater, and director William Carden's production, that the play, which begins as farce and ends as tragedy, feels almost completely unified. The slow progression from a giddy, sometimes silly, portrait of early Communist Russia to a more dark and dangerous Soviet society is slow and subtle. Yet, even when it is at its most dark, there's a certain comic flair at work. Stalin's dictation of the telegram that results in the assassination of Trotsky (the multiply cast Michael Louis Wells shines as the doomed revolutionary) is a comic highpoint of the show, as is the arrival of the man (Steven Boyer), who carries out Stalin's death sentence.

The production can jet from mother Russia to Mexico with ease thanks to the stylish scenic design from Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, who outfits the stage with a wheeled table and three rolling window units. These pieces, kept in constant motion by the company, make Lenin's Embalmers simultaneously cinematic and madcap early on, and later, when lit atmospherically by Chris Dallos, the design elements combine to give the show a humorously ominous B-movie feel.

At the center of the production are Grenier and Sowers' exceptional performances that navigate the piece's comic and dramatic arcs with graceful ease. Rounding out the company are Peter Maloney, who as Lenin, haunts the events in the show, commenting wryly on the action, and Polly Lee, who hysterically plays three Nadias: Lenin's wife/widow, Boris' shrewish and nymphomaniac wife, and Vlad's milquetoast assistant.


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