by Rebecca M. Alvin
Top Image: Robin Bloodworth as Stalin. Photo: Michael & Suz Karchmer
In an age where socialism—or at least certain tenets of socialism—has only recently emerged from its Cold War era taboo, the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater makes a provocative choice in staging Vern Thiessen’ s 2010 play Lenin’s Embalmers. The play, based on a true story, explores the trifecta of Russian communism: Lenin (Robin Haynes), Stalin (Robin Bloodworth), and Trotsky (Gigi Watson), although the plot revolves around the embalming of Lenin, who dies at the beginning of the play.
While it may not seem like the kind of thing usually performed in summer on Cape Cod, Lenin’s Embalmers is actually a hilarious play, dark as it is. Bloodworth’s Stalin is a power-mad oaf who needs his lackey Krasin (Joe Pietropaolo) to finish his sentences for him, providing many of the most memorable laughs of the show. At the same time, the seriousness of the subject and the history of Soviet human rights violations looms large and is never downplayed. On the contrary, the over the top tactics and rampant anti-Semitism are the content of many of the bitterly dark jokes.
While we follow the story of two Jewish scientists with a problematic past together, Vlad (Will Dagger) and Boris (Jonathan Randell Silver) who are retained to embalm Lenin as only they can do, Lenin himself periodically appears to tell bittersweet jokes and remind us that he never wanted to be embalmed or to “live forever.” Dagger and Silver are excellent in their roles, as is Lacy Allen, who plays several women named Nadia, as every woman in the play shares that same stereotypical Russian name.
As the scientists’ egos become increasingly inflated and they ask for more and more compensation for their unique skills, Stalin and Krasin become weary of them and look for ways to continue the embalming process (which has been ongoing in real life for over 95 years now) without them. Although it would not be prudent to share the ending of the play in this review, the final scene offers food for thought in terms of the legacy of communism, socialism, and what the Soviet era was for those who lived through it, apart from the ideologies themselves. No one and nothing lives forever and the only constant is change.
Lenin’s Embalmers is a thoughtful, scathing comedy that, dark as it is, had the audience on opening night laughing from start to finish, even as the more serious aspects of it seeped into our brains to reflect on after the curtain fell.
Lenin’s Embalmers is performed Tuesdays –Saturdays, 8 p.m., at WHAT, 2357 Rte. 6, Wellfleet, through August 31. For tickets ($25 – $39 with student & senior discounts available) and information call 508.349.9428 or visit what.org.