Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Lenin's Embalmers," Ensemble Studio Theater, New York

"To keep the dream of the revolution alive, forever, we must keep Lenin alive, forever..."
Earlier this week, I had the good fortune to see the truly wonderful play "Lenin's Embalmers,"now showing at the Ensemble Studio Theater. This snappy, inventive, engrossing (sic) and splendidly acted play details the unlikely-yet-true story of the embalming-for-eternity of Vladamir Lenin's body in 1924 by two hapless Jewish scientists. At the time, this feat was considered something of a modern miracle; the resulting artifact, controversially (see below...), can still be visited--86 years later!--in Lenin's Mausoleum in Moscow's Red Square.

The play--narrated by the rueful and absurdist-joke-cracking ghost of Lenin (played by the uncannily Lenin-esque Peter Maloney, whose sad eyes haunt and blame)--is much more than the sum of its parts, and transforms the small, modest theater almost magically into a captivating, enthralling, and atmospheric drama. The dialogue is snappy, witty, and pitch-perfect; the themes--of science religion and magic, the Russian penchant for black humor in the face of unbearable circumstances, the madness of life under tyranny, and the very human drives of the people who make science and history--add depth and interest to the already incredibly compelling facts of the story.

Lenin's Embalming is playing at the Ensemble Studio Theater through March 28th. If you can make it before the run ends, I simply cannot recommend it more highly. Subtle, inventive, informative, splendidly acted... a play that really lingers with you, and a joy to watch. This play is also, notably, part of the Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Science & Technology Project, "designed to stimulate artists to create credible and compelling new theatrical works exploring the worlds of science and technology, and to challenge existing stereotypes of scientists and engineers in popular culture." For more on this noble project, click here.

And, on a topical note: as if to prove the relevance of this seemingly arcane topic, just today, the Telegraph ran a story about a man arrested for attempting violence on Lenin's embalmed corpse, who, as the Telegraph describes, claimed "he wanted to let loose a volley of bullets at Lenin's carefully embalmed corpse, one of the Russian capital's most popular and ghoulish tourist attractions!" So, as you can see, the potent symbol of the incorruptible body of Communism continues to resonate and create controversy.

To find out more about the play, visit the theater website by clicking here. You can read a fascinating New York Times review, which parses much of the play's historical content and background, by clicking here. To find out about the book Lenin's Embalmers, which inspired (and provided the name for) the play, click here. You can read the alluded to Telegraph article about the man who tried to destroy the embalmed corpse of Lenin by clicking here. Although Lenin's embalmed body is still on display, it receives regular upkeep; click here to see an online photo show of Lenin's body getting its regular touch-up.

Full disclosure: I received tickets to see this show from the theater, who thought I might like to review it. I did not expect to love it as much as I did, and the free tickets had nothing to do for my ardor! Thanks, Ensemble Studio Theater, for such an excellent night of theater.

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