The Past Revised

Reviewed by Denyse Lynde

Despite the trials and tribulations of Canadian publishers, particularly publishers of play-texts, Playwrights Canada has managed to come out with three handsome editions of recent works by Daniel MacIvor, Vern Thiessen, and Mary Vingoe. They may well be pleased by the result, as should we all.

MacIvor’s Bingo! introduces us to five former classmates who come back together at their high school’s thirtieth reunion. Each approaches the evening planning to erase the decades by remembering past high school dances and hijinks; adolescent drinking games must of course be repeated, just as seeing who is actually at the reunion has to be surreptitiously checked out. The initial moments are almost embarrassingly funny. Watching three grown men pretend that the years have not passed is comical and almost painful. The same dual effect is created by the two women at the bar watching but trying not to watch, borrowing glasses to see but not to be seen—but the play does not rest here. MacIvor wants us to get to know these former classmates, creating five interesting characters who come together to reminisce and reconnect—drinking, recollecting, and sharing; a lot has happened over the last thirty years. Bingo! is an entertaining, thoughtful piece.

Very different is Lenin’s Embalmer by Vern Thiessen, a fanciful take on how and why Lenin’s corpse was preserved. Act 1 is set in January 1924 and by page 8, Lenin is dead and Trotsky has fled. Krasis and Stalin are determined, despite Lenin’s request for no grave, no monuments, and no shrines, to preserve his body at any cost. And despite Lenin’s warning, Don’t let that ignoramus Stalin take over. Trotsky is the future, Stalin manages to seize control. He and Krasis order two scientists, Boris and Vlad, to embalm the rotting corpse.

Thiessen has firm control of this material, and he creates a surprisingly comic take on this historical tale. Characteristic of this play is the return of dead Lenin, who in an almost vaudevillian fashion says to his wife at the close of Act 1, The joke’s on me. The second act opens with the ensemble establishing the year, 1925, and becoming a line of peasants patiently waiting to see the corpse. Not surprising in this fantastic world, Lenin too is in the line! By this time, the body has started to rot and Vlad and Boris must again embalm the corpse. Their fee is of course outrageous but met.

The third play-text is Mary Vingoe’s Living Curiosities or What You Will. Set in Barnum’s American Museum in New York City in 1963, it is primarily the story of the almost eight-foot-tall Anna, a giant from Nova Scotia. Sent to assist her family financially, Anna joins the dwarf Henry, bearded lady Josephine, Siamese twins Change and Eng, and the black albinos, Alphonsia and Lucia, to entertain Barnum’s customers. It is a story of understanding, friendship, and camaraderie when the Curiosities find solace in secretly performing Shakespeare.

All three texts are beautifully produced and each has an impressive but appropriate cover design. All list first-production information. The texts of Vingoe and Thiessen each have a short production note and Vingoe’s text has an introduction by Jenny Munday of the Playwrights Resource Centre.

This review “The Past Revised” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 216 (Spring 2013): 178-179.

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