A lean, mean, embalming machine: Lenin’s Embalmers at the UofA Studio Theatre

There are no heroes in Lenin’s Embalmers. But there are a lot of macabre jokes, women named Nadia, and shots of vodka.

It’s Soviet Russia. 1924, not too long after Vladimir Lenin died on January 24, 1924. Two chemists – Vladimir Vorobyov and Boris Zbarsky – dare to accept the monumental task of attempting to preserve the body of one of the most significant figures of the 20th century under the watch of his successor, Joseph Stalin.

This is is the setting of Vern Thiessen’s second work of the 2018/2019 theatre season – Lenin’s Embalmers – in which he makes a rare stage appearance as Lenin himself. The play opens the University of Alberta Studio Theatre’s season and runs at the Timms Centre for the Arts until October 20.

Alexander Donovan directs this production mostly composed of students (accompanied by Vern Thiessen and Doug Mertz) as part of their MFA Directing Thesis Project. It’s a lean production from top to bottom with not a word, a gesture, or a joke wasted.

The script itself is deftly constructed and full of subtle twists and turns. While the play itself runs about 2 hours, every word of this production is hardworking and meaningful – there are no throwaway lines. One of my favourite examples of this is the myriad of jokes that Lenin tells throughout the production. At first, his obsession with jokes seems an odd quirk for such a famous figure to have, but as the play progresses the connection to the Russian saying the director quotes in the program – “What makes us laugh, makes you cry” – becomes clearer and clearer. Lenin’s Embalmers is a tragedy wrapped in an absurdist comedy – even the jokes hit a little too close to reality.

Throughout Lenin’s Embalmers, we watch the characters become more of who they are – to quote some of the wisdom my Mom has imparted on me. We see the lead embalmer/chemist Vladimir Vorobyov (played by Chris Pereira) become more and more concerned with recognition, glory and validation. On the other hand, Marguerite Lawler’s Boris Zbarsky mellows from being a pure political climber to developing a conscience about who they climb over on their way up. We watch Stalin (Doug Mertz) progress from a slightly unconfident second-in-command to a mostly self-assured dictator. In one of my favourite transformations, we see the aide Krasin (Griffin Cork) fall from feeding Stalin most of his lines to becoming an order taker. Much like how many regimes rise, the steps in all of these transformations are small, slow, and subtle and only rise to a crescendo once it’s too late.

Alexander’s direction of the play is fun, almost comic-book-like at times. And at first it’s a little strange – this is a play about LENIN for goodness sakes – but it quickly starts to feel right. The characters and events are the stuff of legend and using freeze-frame choreography, upbeat silent-movie type sound (design by Logan Chorney), and dramatic colours and costumes (by Robert Shannon) come together to create a production that feels a bit like we’re watching superheroes in a comic book. If this production were to ask the cast of mostly 20-something’s to approach these larger-than-life characters in a way that was strictly 1920s Russia, its authenticity may not have shone through. The production’s comic-book styling makes the most of both the young cast and the legendary story they are bringing to life.

And the set! Designed by C.M. Zuby, the set makes magnificent use of probably one of the biggest stages in town. It’s at once brutalist and industrial with communist ideology keeping watch over the production and audience.

Lenin’s Embalmers by Vern Thiessen plays at the Timms Centre for the Arts as part of the University of Alberta’s Studio Theatre season until October 20. Tickets are $12 – $22 through the UofA’s box office. Mondays are two-for-one tickets.