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Theatre Review

Duke University Theater Studies Rebuilds The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky from the Ground Up

November 14, 2009 - Durham, NC:

As the main play of Duke University Theater Studies’ Fall 2009 season, The Lower D’s opened this past weekend in Emma A. Sheafer Laboratory Theater, downstairs in the Bryan Center student union. Adapted from the 1902 play The Lower Depths by the Russian novelist and playwright Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), The Lower D’s depicts a poorhouse in which 18 souls try to scratch out a living.

The director of the production, Duke Theater Studies faculty member Jay O’Berski, has a long pedigree of theater arts that began even before his college days in Michigan; and his achievements in theater in the Triangle are well documented. He arrived in Chapel Hill with the Somnambulist Project in the early 1990s and soon made a name for himself as an actor and director. He currently wears three hats, including co-founder and artistic director of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and associate artistic director of Manbites Dog Theater.

O’Berski states that the play The Lower D’s is an adaptation of Gorky’s original work. The 18 characters have been stripped of their Russian roots and rebuilt by the actors themselves, each of whom has posted a character sketch of his role on a giant handmade billboard in the lobby of the theater. This billboard, made entirely of recycled material, is the only “program” that exists for the piece.

The production is entirely handmade and constructed of material “begged, borrowed, or stolen” by the cast members. The actors worked with O’Berski and set designer Torry Bend to build an amazing set, producing a “zero-carbon footprint” of a show that the director says gives the cast “ownership” of the new work.

The play is set not in Russia but in Lagos, Nigeria; and the characters are far more international than in the original play. They range from Scottish to African to Russian as well as Middle-Eastern, Asian, and European. This diversity of origins reflects the diversity of the cast, which also ranges from Western to Eastern with many stops in between.

The set is a hole, basically; and the only way in or out is a deep ladder stage left. “Ground level” is above the set and the house, in the catwalks. The hovel in which these characters live is a miasma of odd construction. Each character has tried to make a place for him or herself within these dirty gray walls, applying posters, makeshift doors, or curtains to their bunks, anything that can give the individual a feeling of home in this dirty sty of a cellar.

We meet the cast as an ensemble before we learn the individuals’ names; indeed, very close attention must be paid to get the names of all involved. This “day-in-the-life” production is a dynamic and complicated work that stretches the talents of these collegiate actors and creates a community of people whose meager lives are heart wrenching.

It would be easy to say that “nothing” happens in this play, but it would be more correct to say that “everything” happens. While no discernable plot unfolds, the lives of these people create the day as it evolves before us. Musicians create music, the working poor go about their jobs, and the requisite hookers ply their trade with the poor who seek solace in their arms.

Eating and drinking, living and dying goes on all around us. People love and hate; Man is reviled and exalted. Men and women fight and dream and talk and scream and work and play and laugh and cry. Kindness and cruelty are bedfellows on mattresses strewn on the floor. Books and buckets and instruments and prayer rugs share the tiny space these young actors create. It is amazing and stupefying to watch this grand interaction unfold. These characters are so ugly, so poor, and so real that they are beautiful.

The cast for Duke Theater Studies’ main-stage production of The Lower D’s includes: Ali Yalgin (The Actor), Carolyn McDaniel (Natasha), Timothy Goldberg (Soodi), Utrophia Robinson (Chioma), Ted Caywood (Damon), Emma Miller (Chan), Conrad Haynes (Obanyana), Kala Wolfe (Anna), Danya Taymor (Izabel), Eugenia Madorsky (Vassilissa), Kelsey Wang (Ming), David Rothschild (Kletsch), Jennifer Blocker (DJ), Kana Hatakeyuma (Yukari), Yujin Chun (Hanna), Kirsten Johanssen (Johanna), and Ben Bergmann (Coop). If you want to see college-level actors performing professional-grade ensemble work, then The Lower D’s is the one to watch.

The Lower D’s will run November 19-21 at Sheafer Theater. See our theatre calendar for details.