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The strange story of the chemists who enbalmed Lenin?s body is the jumping-off point for a play of dark Russian humour. (Steve Salnikowski/Chronic Creative/Steve Salnikowski/Chronic Creative)
The strange story of the chemists who enbalmed Lenin?s body is the jumping-off point for a play of dark Russian humour. (Steve Salnikowski/Chronic Creative/Steve Salnikowski/Chronic Creative)


Lenin's Embalmers: preserving history with humour Add to ...

Vern Thiessen is a bit mystified by the enduring human desire to pickle things.

That instinct for preservation beyond nature's lifespan - be it in the form of a statue, a keepsake, a memory, even a jar of pickles - is one of the central sentiments at work in Lenin's Embalmers, the latest play from the Governor-General's Award-winning playwright behind Einstein's Gift and Shakespeare's Will.

Thiessen's tale will make its Toronto debut on Tuesday at the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, having landed on Canadian soil for the first time in October at the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre.

Lenin's Embalmers is a darkly comic imagination of the true tale of two Jewish scientists who were roped into preserving the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin by his communist comrades for display at the mausoleum that remains his public resting place to this day - the ultimate human pickle jar in Moscow's Red Square.

But Thiessen's latest work is much more than a rumination from the condiment aisle. The tale, which Thiessen first discovered through a book of the same name by Ilya Zbarsky (the son of one of Lenin's real-life embalmers), reminded him immediately of his family. His Mennonite parents grew up in Soviet Russia, in what is now southern Ukraine, and both of his grandfathers were sent to Gulag labour camps for anti-Soviet beliefs - only one of them to return.

"So I really wanted to explore this area of history, because I felt I had a close connection to it. I feel like I come by that honestly," Thiessen says.

As for the play's humour, present even in its darkest moments, that may also be hereditary: "My parents are the funniest people I know. They love to laugh in the face of death, and they've experienced so many crazy things in their lives," Thiessen explains.

At 46, Thiessen's beard and blond hair have turned halfway grey and are tucked this morning under a brown fedora. He is jovial and frank, and perhaps a departure from your run-of-the-mill decorated Canadian playwright. Born in Winnipeg and groomed in Edmonton, he lives and works in New York, admittedly because it was an "opportunity" to "reach a different and larger audience." He's a passionate hockey fan who regularly plays ball hockey on New York's West Side with fellow Canadian expatriates. And he admits to having a hard time reading an entire novel, though his partner is a novelist and he has adapted Wuthering Heights to the stage.

With Lenin's Embalmers, his roots are showing. He had "some offers from some pretty major theatre companies to do the Canadian premiere," but he chose the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre so that it could open in his hometown and his parents, both in their 80s, could see it.

"Also, I wanted to support newer, smaller theatre," he says of the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, a company founded in 2006.

Despite its lightheartedness, Lenin's Embalmers is the product of extensive research. Thiessen interviewed relatives, some of whom only recently emigrated to Germany, about the Russian sense of humour and the climate of Soviet-style communism. He delved into the world of chemistry, even enlisting the help of a New York-based embalming consultant, to nail down not only the science but also the artistry of embalming. And he closely studied Lenin's actual embalmers, Vladimir Vorbiov and Boris Zbarsky.

The play was well received in Winnipeg, particularly David Fox's "funny and awful" portrayal of Joseph Stalin, and Thiessen has been surprised by the breadth of audiences it attracted in New York and Winnipeg, "this really strange mixture of people": the Jewish community, Mennonites, scientists, history students - even funeral-home employees.

After our interview, Thiessen is bounding off to the airport to attend the opening of his 2003 play Shakespeare's Will in Germany, and he has four commissions on the go when he returns: an adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, destined for the Shaw Festival; a new family musical about Easter Island for the Manitoba Theatre for Young People; a play entitled Patriots about the 1981 Trudeau-Lévesque constitutional debates; and a play about women in their 60s for Leonard and Susan Nimoy, to be performed in Los Angeles.

Amid this busy schedule, he seems to savour the chance to reflect on Lenin's Embalmers. But he can't spend too long dwelling on what he has immortalized on paper and on stage. That would be staring at the pickle jar.

Lenin's Embalmers runs until Nov. 21 at Toronto's Al Green Theatre.

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