Prepare for nearly three hours of Russian realism with SU Drama’s production of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths
Getting acclaimed as a “masterpiece of realism” is a heavy tagline to bear. Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, set in a provincial flophouse, was the first drama anywhere to haul the dregs of society, rude and smelly, onto the stage. As it was declared a “masterpiece” a century ago, when that word was still fashionable, Depths is commonly assigned in theater history classes and is now read perhaps 500 times for every one it is mounted on stage, such as the current production from the Syracuse University Drama Department. Keeping track of 17 speaking roles means that reading it first is still a good idea.
Once we see it live, however, it becomes something like a vaudeville of despair in which a host of colorful characters, some of them types, have their exits and their entrances. Each also has his or her own shtick, a moment to shine.
Looking at The Lower Depths, where so much meaning is declared in speeches or found near the surface, one is surprised to remember that Gorky (1868-1936) was much encouraged by his pal, the vastly subtler Anton Chekhov, eight years older. Gorky knew society from the bottom up and brought a voice never heard before, portraying more desperate lives than a medical doctor like Chekhov had known. Chekhov did him two important favors: One was supplying him with lavish blurbs, claiming no one could exceed him at what he did best, and second he introduced Gorky to master director Konstantin Stanislavsky. The master was so taken with the sprawling, nearly plotless potpourri that he cast himself as Satin, a character we barely notice at first but who appears to have learned the most during the two hour, 40-minute gabfest. He also gets in the last and most resonant words.
Different directors and different playgoers have disagreed about who the main character is and, not incidentally, what the play is about. When French film director Jean Renoir adapted The Lower Depths for the screen in 1936, he thought the main character was the thief-adulterer Vaska Pepel, who is involved in exciting action and has some of the most powerful speeches.
When the Bolsheviks came to power 15 years after Lower Depths premiered (1902), they claimed Gorky as a precursor and fellow traveler and thus named his native city where the action takes place (formerly Nizhni-Novogord) after him. After they thought about it a while, with the play’s sustained dispute between facing the truth and the “consoling lie” (ahem), they changed their minds. It is widely thought that the playwright’s unexplained death came at Stalin’s secret orders.
Gorky’s depiction of realism is both stylized and surprisingly devoid of empathy. Along with the usual lowlife suspects—the thief, Vaska (Derek Goh), and the prostitute, Nastya (Emilyanne Marie Reddy)—come a fallen aristocrat, still a bit of a dandy, the Baron (Johnny McKeown); a balalaika-playing musician, Alyoska (Juan Carlos Velez-Sanchez); and an alcoholic named simply Actor (Doug Pemberton). Actor keeps quoting Shakespeare, including the word “Nuncle” from the Fool in King Lear, a self-taught playwright’s indulgence rather than what we’d expect from the bottom of society.
The denizens of the flophouse care so little for one another that Gorky seems to be encouraging us to follow suit. From early in the action we see that a bedridden woman at stage left, Anna (Zora Crews), is apparently suffering from consumption, then a common disease. Meanwhile, her locksmith husband, Kleshch (Peter Sansbury), far across Ryan Shaules’ shabby but panoramic set, obsessively saws away at something he cannot fix. He’s too distracted to pay much attention to her. When Anna does indeed die, perhaps the least affecting demise in stage history, the indifferent fur dealer Bubnov (Max Miller) allows that at least they won’t have to listen to her coughing any more.
The reader will have noticed that the flophouse provides no comforts and no privacy. Renters sleep on wooden pallets covered with straw, and there’s much complaint that loose straw should be swept from the floor. Both sexes sleep in the open room without benefit of partitions. In 1902-era realism no one ever raises the question of a toilet, and none of the characters ever answers the call of nature. The male and female libidos are still throbbing, however, but for them to come into play we must cross a class barrier and think of people sleeping in beds rather than on straw.
The loudmouthed, overbearing slumlord Kostilyov (Robert Axelrod), who runs the place, makes frequent and unwelcome entrances, but it’s his cold-hearted wife Vasilissa (Maureen Boughey) who generates the most buzz among the denizens. Boughey, an understudy who appeared in the opening night’s cast, projected a cool, blonde hauteur, not unlike Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Under that facade flows the lava of lust for the articulate Pepel. She’d like to escape her tormenting marriage and is plotting to kill her husband.
Such misbehavior from property owners pleased the Soviets when they produced The Lower Depths, but Gorky had some non-ideological complications in mind. Vaska rejects Vasilissa and instead prefers her brunette sister Natasha (Anto Pereira), a woman of the same class. In her speeches Natasha is one of the most agreeable characters in the whole piece, but she rejects Vaska’s entreaties. Beautiful harridan Vasilissa does not get this, as all the denizens do, and so beats and torments her sister, pouring boiling water on her legs. This squalid episode is the most gripping of the drama, but it is forgotten by the time we get to the final curtain.
By the time we reach that curtain we have also forgotten the most admirable person in the flophouse: the optimist and moralist Luka (Will Pullen). As an indication of what a challenge it is for audiences to keep with the action, Luka is usually referred to as “the Old Man,” and only a reviewer with a notebook and pocket light can be sure of his name. Perhaps modeled on Leo Tolstoy, another pal of Gorky’s, Luka speaks for pity and magnanimity, believing each person can be reached and encouraged. He tells Actor that drunkenness can be cured. But he is not Gorky’s mouthpiece, as he might have been if George Bernard Shaw wrote the play, and for all his efforts people are back where they started a few moments later. Pullen, a third-year drama major, evokes Luka’s age with a constricted voice and an arthritic half-step.
One of director Gerardine Clark’s motivations in scheduling The Lower Depths is
that it allows all 17 students to escape their youth through Danielle
Hodgins’ heavy and individualizing costumes, hirsute beards and wigs and
more than anything, layers and layers of technique. If your mind
wanders during one of the complaints or disputes, you can still follow
the emotional thread by watching the emotive bodysets and what are in
effect dance steps, and not just in Felix Ivanov’s staged combats.
Indeed, if you could turn off the sound, you could be equally involved
with the drama as a ballet. Realism, we know 100 years after Maxim
Gorky, is just another form of expression.
This production runs through Sunday, March 4. See Times Table for information.