Embalmment and humor would seem like an unlikely pairing, but “Lenin’s Embalmers” is anything but lifeless. Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s production is the perfect combination of drama, political intrigue, and thought-provoking dark humor.
The historical play opens in 1924, with Robin Haynes playing Lenin. He has been shot and proclaims that he wants “no graves, no monuments, and no shrines.” Tellingly, he also insists he doesn’t want “the idiot Stalin” to take over. Surprisingly, after his quick demise, Lenin’s role is not over, but switches to consummate comedian—highlighting the constant political threats and conspiratorial dangers that lurk in “Mother Russia.”
With excellent delivery, Haynes speaks confidently to the audience: “It’s an old Soviet joke. Three Russians are in a gulag. The first one says, ‘What are you in for?’ The second one replies, ‘I called Zbarsky a revolutionary.’ That’s funny,’ the first one says, ‘I called Zbarsky a counterrevolutionary.’ ‘That’s funny,’ the third one says. ‘I’m Zbarsky.’”
With his imposing stature, Robin Bloodworth portrays Stalin with equal parts menacing authoritarian and gleeful child, ultimately stealing the show. Stalin orders the immortalization of Lenin through embalming. And his nervous lackey Krasin (Joe Pietropaolo) enlists Jewish biochemists Boris Zbarsky and Vladimir Vorobiov to do what no one has done before—preserving a body forever.
After much theorizing, Boris (Jonathan Randell Silver) and Vlad (Will Dagger) come up with the right procedure to immortalize Lenin. As Lenin’s body needs to be re-embalmed every six months, the impoverished Boris jokes, “It’s a job for life.” As the more politically savvy of the two scientists, Randell portrays Boris with a diplomatic polish, while Dagger maximizes Vlad’s defiant nature, displaying his internal struggles that he drowns with vodka.
Lacy Allen plays the three women, all named Nadia, in this dark comedy. After portraying Lenin’s wife, she switches to Boris’ wife. With perfect deadpan she explains, “I am Nadia—but not the same Nadia as before. I now will play the unhappy wife.”
David Fraioli and Gigi Watson portray secret agents who add to the comic relief, and can often be diverted from their task with shots of vodka that they ritualistically drink.
Director RJ Tolan maximizes the highly imaginative and original work of dramatic art. Christoper Ostrom’s scenic design is inspired, with bare scaffolding to elevate the presence of Stalin, framed by a weathered-looking Soviet flag that fills the background. Comical cut-outs, large and small, of Lenin are placed around the set, with a couple peeking out from behind the curtain, ideal for a selfie.
Nathan Leigh’s sound design captures the spirit of Russian culture, while also adding to the suspense, in combination with John Salutz’s dramatic lighting. Genevieve Beller’s costume design is authentic looking, especially Stalin’s uniform.
WHAT’s irreverent “Lenin’s Embalmers” is a unique and lively theatrical experience, and, like Lenin’s still-embalmed body, is not to be missed.
At Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Route 6, Wellfleet
Through Aug. 31
Information and reservations: 508-349-9428