Details: The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. A new adaptation by The Seagull Project, co-Production of The Seagull Project and Intiman Theatre, through February 24 at Erickson Theatre. Post-show conversations with production partner organizations serving the Seattle area’s houseless populations at specific performances.
The Seagull Project identifies itself as “inspired by the artistry and humanitarian legacy of Anton Chekhov.” Since its start in 2011 and its first performance of The Seagull at ACT Theatre in 2013, the ensemble has sustained this inspiration in the development and production of three additional full-length, canonical Chekhov plays, as well as with the “Great Souls” live and podcast reading series of Russian, American, and global authors.
With this February’s presentation of The Lower Depths, the group has taken on their first play since Uncle Vanya in 2019, a timeline that reflects both the challenges of COVID on theatergoing and The Seagull Project’s longform process, reserving 18 months of workshops before the final weeks of rehearsal and performance. It is also their first full play to be performed at the Erickson Theatre, on Seattle Central College’s campus, where The Lower Depths is a co-production with Intiman Theatre, the theatre-in-residence for both the 140-seat Erickson Theatre and the larger Broadway Performance Hall at SCC since 2020.
There has been a great deal of risk in Seattle theater in recent years, so the increased stability and perseverance of the co-producers is welcome news. Yet this is a production with some risk. It does seem safe enough, at first, just a minor shift, for The Seagull Project to adapt and perform Gorky’s The Lower Depths.
In time and culture, Maxim Gorky’s writing is familiar territory for the Seattle-based group. The Lower Depths, like Chekhov’s The Seagull, is a Russian play from the turn of the nineteenth century. It was performed at the Moscow Art Theatre, in 1902, and The Seagull was performed there only four years earlier. Both productions were triumphs at the time, and both were directed by the legendarily gifted and influential Konstantin Stanislavsky.
But to go from Chekhov to Gorky is a radical departure. Gorky has a very different and less prominent position in the canon of American theater performances than Chekhov. The content is different. For all the emotional misery and shards of unhappy humor in Chekhov, the world that Gorky portrays is unnervingly harsh by comparison. Gorky is dramatizing a bleaker bitter misery, where the daily grind of poverty, violence, and vodka leave his characters with their heads barely above water, trying to breathe. The title of the play describes their condition, conceptually and specifically, demeaningly housed in a boarding house that makes the New York City flophouses described by American realist author Theodore Dreiser in Sister Carrie (1900) seem benign by comparison.
In addition, while Chekhov is hardly the most transparent of playwrights, Gorky is hard to pin down in terms of his attitude towards characters. He expanded his career as a revolutionary Marxist author, with alternating rounds of exile and official renown in the Soviet Union, where he was credited as a founder of socialist realism in literature. Yet in the play itself, it is hard to see exactly where the author stands.
Age 34 in 1902, the author draws on his extraordinarily brutal childhood and young adulthood, and he is determined to bear witness to his experience. He doesn’t romanticize or sentimentalize his characters. While every character has flashes of humanity, there are no heroes, no diamonds-in-the-rough, no saints, and mostly sinners and survivors in play. There’s a case to be made that this makes the piece profoundly humanitarian, but it’s a story full of anger and skepticism, continually pushing back at the audience’s expectations.
As Gavin Reub, the play’s director and co-adaptor puts it, “Gorky’s philosophy is particularly difficult to translate.” Yet the ensemble took on the risk, did the work. The play, and its frame of activity before and beyond the month of performances, is an extraordinary reward. The months of workshopping, the translation by the ensemble’s Tyler Polumsky, the adaptation by David Quicksall, Charles Leggett, and Reub, the engagement of the ensemble’s performers throughout the process, the partnerships with Seattle area organizations and individuals with direct experience of housing insecurity, are all part of The Seagull Project’s way of finding the play’s through line of “artistry and humanitarian legacy.”
In a 2023 Lower Depths workshop conversation by Katrina Scarlet, with Mary’s Place, a Seattle and King County nonprofit serving families experiencing homelessness, she spoke of “elevating the voices of our guests,” as part of the organization’s work. Scarlet was articulating a foundational position, summarized in the principle of “not about us without us,” often used in health, services, and education. The United Nations, in describing the first 20 years of holding World Humanitarian Day, states that humanitarians “stand shoulder to shoulder with the communities they serve.” It is a perilously high bar to aspire to. Yet from the engagements through the months of workshopping, to the artwork in the lobby, from workshops with Path with Art, to the after-the-show conversations, The Seagull Project and Intiman Theatre have set that aspiration.
While that full scope of such work continues in this moment (the play closes on Feb. 24), the audience is now able to see and hear the impact of this framing on the adaptation and the performances. The play as transformed is limber, funny, and thoughtful as it updates, geolocates, revises, and deletes. The time has been moved to the present, the place to somewhere in the United States where it still gets cold, and where a lot of the music trends to the 1970s. Remarkably, though, despite shifts in gender, relationships, and cultural references, the plot and character stay very close to Gorky’s sense of place, time, and narrative.
It’s not a cheerful setting. The drama stays trapped in the basement boarding house, except for a brief respite in the yard before it returns to the cellar in the end. The tenants, living in bunkbeds with curtains for a modicum of privacy, include archetypes who fight for their individual identity. There are thieves and cardsharps, underemployed artisans, an actor, a baron fallen on hard times, a dying mother (a dying wife in Gorky’s script), and a greedy, cruel, unsatisfied landlord and wife, together with the wife’s younger sister. There are frequent visitors, a policeman, who is also uncle to the landlord’s wife and her sister, and a “pilgrim” who arrives, dispenses what appears to be wisdom, and leaves when the plot comes undone, partly due to her machinations. Virtually all of them drink any moment they can.
Summaries of the play sometimes say that there is very little plot, but there are plenty of stories, all of which end badly. No one is the hero. While there are a few characters who are reconciled to their situation, most of them chafe, curse, and rage at being in such lower depths. Often they compare their circumstances to a prison. They want to escape. They reach out to each other, then they snap back. The threat of arrest and the threat of losing their marginal housing is ever present. Along the way, in the overlapping stories, there are deaths, catastrophic love triangles, lost identities, and manslaughter. Instead of escaping, one visitor will move in permanently, becoming a drunken shadow of his former self. There are characters who float hopes and dreams, but all of those aspirations—love, sobriety, work, philosophy, and even comradeship—sink back to the bottom in the end.
Yet there is so much humor and seriousness along the way that you can’t turn your eyes away from it. Reub, the director, described the process of adaptation as finding “moments of beauty” and “the blood and guts” of the play, and also the reality of the characters, including how they “deal with circumstances through comedy.” The impressive ensemble acting is evidence of the actors’ craft as well as the deep dive process before rehearsals. The 14 actors, who include translator Polumsky and adapters Quicksall and Leggett, pace, hide, sleep, walk, and fight with authority, acting on a wide, shallow stage where there are at times multiple conversations and interactions.
These are vignettes in a play where all the parts count, where even the least attractive character has moments of transcendence, and more rarely, connection. In intimate theater like this, the audience can believe, temporarily, that the actor’s next move is unscripted, that anything can happen.
It can also be funny. Ending with the Ramones anthem about wanting to be sedated, about 76 years for Gorky to have included it in his text, is securely in the spirit of the end-of-their-rope comradeship of the singers. There are times when the script, in the adaptation and in standard translations, seems to intimate the attitude of Charles Bukowski’s late mid-century realist themes, reveling in the freedom of failure and outsider status.
Yet there are many competing voices in the play that counter this. Actor, played by Alexandra Tavares, is in an endless churn of self-doubt epitomized by her inability to remember the lines of verse she’s learned and loved. She breaks through, back to her past self, with a recitation, which, not as in Gorky, is “Insomnia,” Elizabeth Bishop’s 1955 poem: “The moon in the bureau mirror /looks out a million miles/(and perhaps with pride, at herself,/but she never, never smiles).” However, the process got to this poem, it is a convincing, if fleeting moment of transcendence.
Or a con, as some of the characters point out regarding every claim that there is any transcendence, resolution, or opportunity possible with the cards they’ve been dealt. While every character has a backstory, and everyone of them gets their cut at philosophy, two of them are scripted to carry the most water, in Gorky’s original as in this adaptation. Luka, the pilgrim, played by Amy Thone with unnervingly brilliant cadence and timing, offers reassurance and hope, whether to the dying, or to the young lovers she advises to escape their boarding house hell. She convinces the actor that there’s a clinic where her alcoholism can be cured. She’s genuinely compassionate, yet when the going gets rough, she’s off to the Yucatan for what sounds like a new age community. The adaptation takes her to the edge of parody, her language can be anodyne, yet the words are also powerful enough to echo in the mind of her philosophical counterpart, Satin, played by Miguel Castellano.
Satin, near the end of the play, offers a soaring indictment of the society in which he and his fellow lodgers are trapped. He stands on the table, drunk but held steady by his peers, and makes an eloquent cry for the fundamental dignity of being seen and being heard, as he is, by the world afraid to acknowledge him.
There’ll be a twist, a gust of nihilism, from him at the very end. He can’t have been named after God’s fallen angel by accident, after all. It’s a disturbing finish, the way Gorky wanted it to be.
Information: The Lower Depths is a co-production of The Seagull Project and Intiman Theatre. It is being presented at Erickson Theatre, where Intiman is the theatre-in-residence at Seattle Central College. 1524 Harvard Avenue, Seattle. 206.934.3052. Performances continue through February 24. Special events after the performances with production partnerships include: February 11, Post-show conversation with Facing Homelessness; February 18, Post-show conversation with Jubilee Women’s Center; February 20, Post-show conversation with University Heights; February 21-22, Post-show conversation with Recovery Café. Lobby talk after the show. For additional dates, times, and tickets: The Lower Depths Tickets. For additional information, intiman.org or theseagullproject.org.