Sunday, September 22, 2019

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Charles Shaw Robinson
The longest, probably best-known poem by the late-eighteenth, early-nineteenth-century founder of the English Romantic Movement, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is the latest theatrical undertaking by San Francisco’s Word for Word Performing Arts Company and its home, Z Space.  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, written between 1797 and ’98, is a haunting parable whose message about the damning aftermath of a man’s killing for his own thrill an innocent albatross rings with modern, portending significance in an age where animal species, rain forests, and icebergs face critical reductions due to human intervention.  In an atmosphere visually and orally immersive where the audience is drawn into the poem’s story by a cast of nine who pass rhyming lines seamlessly one to another, Word for Word once again triumphs in bringing the words of the printed page to full life with no editing of an original that was certainly not written as a play’s script. 

For those who need a reminder of a long-ago English lesson in high school, Coleridge’s epic relates one man’s journey on a ship that is drawn into the icy seas of the Antarctic only to be saved by a guiding albatross that then leads the desperate crew back to warm waters.  For some reason unexplained in the poem, a young mariner shoots the noble bird with his cross-bow – a savior whom “as if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name.” 

This crime of nature does not go unnoticed by either the watching Sun or Moon, with the boat’s crew soon being visited by a ghastly figure named Death after languishing for days near an equator where no wind, water, or food can save them.  All perish except the guilty mariner who must not only watch all the others die around him, but must remain on the empty, still boat in his crazed state amongst their haggard bodies.  As is related in the poem, his punishment will take on many fevered, fantastical features as delivered from the spirits from above and the ghosts all around him.  Not letting him die, they curse him to survive and to be doomed to a wandering life of loneliness, retelling to whomever he meets his tale of sin.

Charles Shaw Robinson & Lucas Brandt
With long beard of white and a near-expressionless countenance save a look of desperate need to be heard, Charles Shaw Robinson is stunningly impressive as the Ancient Mariner who grabs the passing-by shoulders of a surprised Wedding Guest on his way to a friend’s nuptials and with scratching, gruff voice, demands the young man listen to his tale.  At first bemused, then irritated, and eventually both frightened and intrigued, the Wedding Guest soon becomes so caught up in the harrowing story himself to become – in this Word for Word retelling – the Young Mariner himself. 

Lucas Brandt gives the performance of the evening as the sailor who seals his own fate by the shot of an arrow and then is imprisoned on the doomed ship to suffer well-deserved consequences.  The ranges of emotions Mr. Brandt so ably displays in both his own poetic narratives but especially in his looks of fright, fatigue, resignation, and remorse are chilling to witness.

Robert Ernst
But this entire cast performs with a sense of poetic flow that is mesmerizing to watch.  Phrases that one person begins, another ends without a pause – each in the unique flavor and nature of the character represented.  There is the sea-scarred-and-schooled Helmsman (Robert Ernst) and the young crew members at first romping to their stations and later languishing in their torment (Nathaniel Andalis, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and Earl Paus).  Darryl V. Jones is royally commanding in his draping robes of various gold as The Sun, moving above the crew in his daily journey across the sky and serving as a powerfully voiced proclaimer and commenter.  Later in the poem, Mr. Jones transforms into an old Hermit, who sings his version of godly hymns to passing mariners and is the first to see the skeleton of ship where the Ancient Mariner barely breathes. 

Daryl V. Jones & Cast
In that sky above also appears nightly The Moon (Patricia Silver) in flowing white with sparkling crown and a Polar Spirit (Randall Wong), with both also taking on the eerie, other-worldly images of Life-in-Death and Death, respectively.  They, like the rest of the cast, bring many different tones of voice and choreographed stances and movements (designed by Nol Simonse) as Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave direct this cast in the massively impressive, collective recitation-in-action of Coleridge’s classic.

As good as is this cast, it is the design team itself that is the real ‘wow’ of the production.  Paired ramps encircle the slanted floor of a moving ship whose ribbed edges rise like the remains of the skeletons that will soon reside there – all designed by Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally.  Projections on those ramps and their environs by Teddy Hulsker become splashing puddles of a rainstorm, rainbow-colored and slimy creatures of the sea, and skies reflecting their millions of stars in the waters.  Nikki Anderson-Joy’s costumes expressively have a sense of movement of both sea and the sky while also bringing in the elements of a story both harsh and mystical.  Hannah Clague adds a design of props, one of which hangs around the Young Mariner’s neck and illustrates quite vividly the much-spoken idiom, ‘hung like an albatross around one’e neck.’

But as impressive as all this is, it is the sound genius of Matt Stines and the lighting miracles of Ray Oppenheimer that rule the evening.  Time and again they together turn Z Space into the likes of a tumultuous stormy sea, a frozen mass of icebergs, or a sinking and doomed ship with all its dying cracks and creaks surrounding us.

If only I as a senior in high school could have spent an hour seeing this Word for Word production rather than several grueling hours struggling to read the sometimes obscure, often difficult-to-comprehend words on a page.  But having said that and as wonderful and memorable as this production is, the potential theatre-goer should be forewarned that the production’s length is in fact barely one hour.  For some, that will be welcomed news; for others of us who must brave commuter traffic to get to SF from the ‘burbs, know the evening may be much shorter than the trip to see it.  Perhaps it is too bad this poem’s telling could not have been paired with another, perhaps shorter Word for Word poetic enactment to make the evening a bit fuller.

That said, there is little not immediately to like and a long time in memory to relish from this outstanding production by Word for Word.  More importantly, Coleridge leaves us with lines whose meaning echoes clearer today than ever before – lines in a poem that reflect the opposite of what we read almost daily about what we humans are doing to our earth and its native inhabitants, both plant and animal:

“He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Rating: 5 E

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner continues through October 12, 2019 in production by Word for Word at Z Space, 470 Florida Street San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at

Photo Credits:  Hillary Goidell

No comments:

Post a Comment