Jesus and Cruella DeVil

Maybe it was Jesus who first popularized the ridiculous notion that the poor and oppressed are better than everybody else. From that nauseating sentiment stem contemporary fables in which poverty breeds an innate sense of nobility, fostering individuals who are the wisest and most compassionate among us—the whore with the heart of gold, the tramp who saves the lonely rich girl, the homeless guy in the park who dispenses sage philosophy between quaffs of Thunderbird.

There's a pinch of that salt-of-the-Earth in Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths, his 1902 drama about wretched people living in squalor in the cellar of a lodging house. But what makes the play truly intriguing is that the poor aren't just a bunch of philosophy-spouting automatons oppressed by the Man. They're ugly and vulgar, and even if they are the waste products of capitalism, an honest reading of Gorky's play suggests that they deserve some share of the blame for their situation. Victims, yes, but also perpetrators of their own misery.

The best thing about Dave Barton's adaptation of Gorky's play for the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company is that he gets Gorky's complicated view of the poor right. It's very easy to side with the disadvantaged in this play; we still do, but with the realization that there are no heroes, or even admirable people, in this world.

The Lower Depths is very simple. Poor people live in a basement; landlord and his wife treat them like shit; poor people finally can't take it and rise up. Along the way, there's a lot of philosophizing and bickering and talking about honor and dignity and God and dreams and dying and similarly grim, moody Russian-literature stuff.

But the world of this play isn't early 20th-century Russia; it's late-20th-century America. Instead of Gorky's toiling working-class characters (shoemakers, locksmiths, cap-makers), Barton, who also directs, opts for a Tom Waits-like world of colorful drag queens, gamblers, drunks, junkies and thieves.

This doesn't make Gorky's play more relevant. In fact, you could reasonably argue that this rogue's gallery of modern-day losers tampers too much with the dynamic at work in Gorky's original, which was decidedly anti-capitalist. These characters aren't the foundation upon which the superstructure is built: these aren't disadvantaged proles; they're freaks.

You could make that argument, and then you'd probably conclude that it doesn't matter: this adaptation is actually a better play than the one Gorky wrote.

Maxim Gorky was no great playwright. He was didactic and wrote thinly drawn characters. One critic has rightly observed that Gorky was "rough, impatient, and one-dimensional." His plays don't really develop through action so much as plod through isolated passages of dialogue fueled every so often by clunky, obvious dramatic devices.

In contrast, this Lower Depths is a visceral production, one that feels like it's a play about people, albeit screwed-up people. For that, Barton and cast deserve applause even if, stylistically, the actors never seem to be on the same page. For every actor who mines his or her character for genuine gold (such as Susan Shearer-Stewart's memorable bag lady or Lee Jalube's thief), there's another who is all bluster and superficiality. And I don't know what's supposed to be going on with the landlord's wife (Raquel Rigg), the woman whose infidelity and cruelty really sets in motion the climax of this play. Rigg delivers a very interesting and consistent performance, but am I alone in thinking Cruella DeVil?

Despite these modest shortcomings, the play builds to an explosive, white-knuckle climax—partly because Barton lops Gorky's final act from the play. And if the updating and cranked-up sex and violence don't make it any easier to grasp the whole of this piece, they make for an often engrossing ride.

The Lower Depths at Rude Guerilla's Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through June 9. $10-$12.

 
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