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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long lyrical ballad, first published in 1798, chronicles the supernatural events of a sailor's journey to the Arctic. The albatross — possibly English literature's most famous bird — saves the sailor and his shipmates by leading them out of icy danger and bringing benevolent winds their way. When the Mariner (played by Evett) capriciously kills the albatross, he's forced, as penance, to carry the bird's heavy corpse on a rope around his neck.
The script of Albatross acknowledges that most spectators associate The Rime (if they know it at all) with a handful of familiar phrases, most notably, "water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink." From time to time, the play quotes Coleridge's verse and its antiquated language, but most of the text is lively prose that's easy to follow and accessible to the contemporary ear.
In Albatross, as in The Rime, the Mariner is a peripatetic storyteller, recounting bizarre experiences on the high seas, as well as incidents of his own irrational behavior, for anyone willing to listen.
While Coleridge reveals little about the Mariner's history, Albatross supplies a detailed backstory. In the play, the Mariner has left the seafaring life temporarily in order to care for his ailing son. His odyssey begins in 1720 when he's shanghaied from a pub and carried onto a vessel headed for South America.
As a performer, Evett has no difficulty holding spectators' attention for the play's 85 minutes. His high energy never flags; his demeanor is at once dauntless and natural. Alone in the spotlight, he manages convincing colloquy among the multiple characters he plays without straining or mugging or jumping around.
Evett is at his best as Black Dog, a privateer whose operatives kidnap the Mariner to serve as navigator on the voyage. Black Dog rules by intimidation and fights like a wild animal.
In an early scene, the Mariner describes Black Dog biting off the nose of an adversary, chewing it up, and spitting it out. Later in the performance, Evett enacts Black Dog in brawling mode, "open[ing] his mouth, teeth like a canine, an' bit[ing] down" on his adversary's shoulder and spitting "chunks of flesh an' blood on the deck."
Albatross is filled with vivid details of life at sea that don't come from Coleridge. Whether the authors have researched the world of 18th century shipping or have fabricated it all, they've managed to enliven Coleridge's idiosyncratic ballad, enhancing considerably its stage-worthiness. "You know you're getting close to South America," the Mariner remarks, "'cuz the air smells sweet, you see birds, an' the water changes color. Piss yellow, then blood red with these great big batches of shrimp."
Designers Cristina Todesco (sets), Frances McSherry (costumes), and Garrett Herzig (lights and projections) have collaborated with director Rick Lombardo (who's also the production's sound designer) to give Albatross visual and aural variety and far more movement than a single actor could muster. It's all very engaging; though, at certain points, the theatrics and the molto agitato tempo are more distraction than enhancement.
The playwrights do their best to connect the Mariner's story to urgent issues of the present. Coleridge, whose vast body of verse reflects a lifelong search for order in the universe, closes his ballad with a plea for community among humans and fellow feeling for all earthly creatures: "He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small; / For the dear God who loveth us, / He made and loveth all."
In Albatross, the Mariner equates his sin in killing the bird to 21st century assaults on the earth's fragility, especially careless disposition of garbage and the failure to recycle used resources. He refers to over-dependence on plastics and the threat of items such as bottle caps, once discarded, ending up in a "continent of trash floating in the South Pacific" that causes ecological havoc.
"A mother bird sees the bright blue [bottle] cap an' thinks it's food . . . a lovely berry full of goodness. She tenderly feeds it to her growing chick . . . a baby. And the baby dies, its gut jammed with bits of plastic someone . . . tossed away without a thought."
That may not be what Coleridge had in mind. But it's not a bad way to rehabilitate his poem for audiences alienated by sophomore English.
Search CurtainUp in the box below
By Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett
Director: Rick Lombardo
Cast: Benjamin Evett (The Mariner)
Set Designer: Cristina Todesco
Lighting & Projection Designer: Garrett Herzig
Costume Designer: Frances McSherry
Sound Designer: Rick Lombardo
Production Stage Manager: Leslie Sears
Running Time: 85 minutes (without intermission)
Presented by The Poets Theatre and Michael Seiden
59E59 (Theater B), 59 East 59th Street
>From 1/12/17; opened 1/19/17; closing 2/12/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at January 14th press performance
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