The Lower Depths divides into three acts; It takes three acts for the cast to relax into a collective cadence. Act one is dominated by an uneasy rhythm created by the actors anticipating the next move/line. Act two, far more jovial and laugh-packed than the previous one, crescendoes to a fight as funny as an episode of the Three Stooges. Act three is an unpleasant marriage of drunken revelations, unwarranted rage and pain. Despite these shortcomings, the denouement holds a punch. Two-and-a-half hours later, the emotional ending seems warranted and resonates beyond the curtain call.
Russian realism has a bad rep. Most sour away from its blunt discussion (sometimes idealization) of death, philosophical dialogue and mundane plots. This genre doesn’t aspire to awe but rather enlighten, and, sometimes, this results in a production so dull you join the onstage prayers for the sweet release of death.
Syracuse University drama department’s production of Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths fell within the limitations of the genre. Despite the large ensemble’s comedic moxie, the drama felt lifeless.
Set in a Russian flophouse at the turn of the 20th century, The Lower Depths follows a band of social outcasts (thieves, ex-convicts, poor workers, as well as those fallen from grace) suffering through the perils of daily life. People die (from natural and unnatural causes), hearts break and copious amounts of vodka are consumed. The ensemble, 11 men and 5 women, moves in and out of focus as the characters interact in smaller group scenes, duets and monologues. While the moments of tension may have been the reality of 1900s rural Russian life, a 21st century audience may find it difficult to connect with the characters’ tribulations.
The scenic and costume design shine in this production. Ryan Shaules’ set transports the audience to lower class Russian squalor, complete with cracked walls buried under inches of dirt and bed linens that look more suited to animals than humans. The costumes, by Danielle Hodgins, evoke the poor hygiene of the era. From the boots that wear their age like a badge of honor to the greasy beards, the men’s wear is divine. The women wear once lovely items, tarnished by time and misfortune.
Given the innate challenges of The Lower Depths, Syracuse University handles the difficult text with aplomb. Their attention to detail and commitment to accuracy was apparent, but I found this alone could not resurrect this production. Perhaps a more effective learning tool for the students than an audience-pleasing production, The Lower Depths, a masterpiece of Russian realism, flatlines in the context of contemporary life.