Diving the depths

Vladivostok's chamber theater brings a Russian masterpiece to Seattle.

Maxim Gorky, the first major playwright after Anton Chekhov to be produced by Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theater, was a very different sort of man than the bourgeois doctor he replaced. A true member of the proletariat, Gorky had traveled the steppes of Russia as a tramp and occasional worker, taught himself to read, and been jailed for his writings against the czarist government. When the theater agreed to produce his second play, The Lower Depths, in 1905, Gorky insisted that the company come with him on a visit to the underground dens of the Khitrov Market, which resembled the flophouse in which his play was set. In his autobiography, Stanislavski was to say that “the excursion, more than any discussion or analysis of the play, awoke my fantasy and my creative mood.”

The Lower Depths

Freehold Studio Lab

November 1922

Nearly 100 years later, another theater artist, Seattle’s Mark Jenkins (director, writer, University of Washington teacher, and co-founder of Freehold Studio Lab) was to have a similar awakening, through an encounter with the Vladivostok Chamber Theater. As part of a Stanislavski conference last April, Jenkins saw a production of The Lower Depths by the Vladivostok group, which has been developing the show for six years under the direction of Leonid Anisimov. Says Jenkins of the experience, “It made me feel that I had been in Dante’s Inferno. I also felt that it was an incredible insight into seeing what Stanislavski was really up to. It’s significantly more audacious and stronger than what we might think.”

Jenkins decided that this was something Seattle audiences had to see, so he began making plans to bring the company over. With the help of (among others) New York’s International Theater Institute, grassroots fund raising, and the donation of beds and meals, Jenkins and his colleagues at Freehold have brought the company and their costumes and props over for four days at the Studio.

A masterpiece of naturalism, The Lower Depths has no central protagonist; the characters (alcoholics, prostitutes, thieves, and losers) and setting sound dreary and depressing. But Gorky’s aim is to show that even under the worst of circumstances, the human spirit strives toward something beyond the immediate. As Luka, one of the young women living in the flophouse, says of her fellows, “They all live worse, it’s true, but they all want something better. They’re a stubborn lot.”

This production, per the wishes of the director, will be for a limited audience of 70 or so. It’ll also be in Russian, though with English translation. These two factors, along with a long running time, may limit its appeal to some Seattleites—a shame, as Jenkins truly believes this production is something special. “It’s as though you’re not watching actors act. You’re seeing the externals, but you’re also seeing their insides being revealed.” This, and the close proximity of the audience, raises the performance to something truly remarkable, even for an artist with as much experience as Jenkins. “It’s pretty high falutin’, but Leonid wants to give an audience an opportunity to purify itself on the basis of the show. For myself, I have to say that it’s a way of dipping into a new and deeper well.”