Thursday, January 19, 2017

121. Review: ALBATROSS (seen January 17, 2017)

“Water, Water, Everywhere”

Except for a rainshower late in the play, no actual water appears on stage during this one-man play based on Samuel Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but there’s enough of it projected on a set of ragged sails to make sensitive stomachs queasy. In Albatross, writers Matthew Spengler and Benjamin Evett have created an intense one-man play around Coleridge’s poem, famous for its place in the early history of Romanticism. Evett himself performs the title figure in a tour-de-force of acting chops and physical stamina.

Benjamin Evett. Photo: Carole Goldfarb.
Evett depicts the ancient mariner as a grizzled, middle-aged man in tattered seaman’s clothes (designed by Frances McSherry) doomed to walk the earth and tell the story of what happened during his fateful trip on a ship that sailed from England to South America and back sometime in the 18th century.
Benjamin Evett. Photo: Carole Goldfarb.
Coleridge’s poem, already rich in imagery and circumstance, and worthy of an unembellished performance in its own right, is here the skeleton on which Spengler and Evett attach a considerable amount of narrative flesh. The mariner, for example, is given a back story of a sick child, a drunken wife, and a tavern visit in Bristol that leads to his being shanghaied aboard a privateer captained by the ferocious Black Dog.

Even more new characters and events, like the cruel destruction of a Spanish galleon and the even crueler death of one of its sailors, which conflates the story with that of the Flying Dutchman, are present, and the dialogue is filled with the salty profanities of the sort that give us phrases like “swearing like a sailor.” The mariner, having been forced to walk the earth for nearly three centuries, often interjects modern references; the appearance of an IPhone is one obvious example.

The original’s highlights remain, of course: these include the ship’s being caught in the icebound South Pole, its windless stasis in the sizzling South Pacific, the presence of supernatural spirits, and the appearance of an albatross that saves the ship only to be meaninglessly slain, thereby precipitating the mariner’s odyssey of guilt and repentance. And Coleridge’s themes regarding the taking of life and respect for nature are updated, with an especially pointed message about the careless disposal of refuse.
Benjamin Evett. Photo: Carole Goldfarb.
Now and then, a verse or two from Coleridge is inserted, and the mariner occasionally takes an ironic, metatheatrical tone toward the poem, making fun of the audience’s expectations regarding such well-known lines as the one about “Water, water, everywhere nor any drop to drink.” The writers have added a great deal of rather vivid verbal imagery depicting physical horrors, including what it’s like when you’re adrift without water for days under a blazing sun and have only your own rotten piss to drink.

Evett, vigorously energetic, keeps moving and talking for 85 minutes, his storytelling enhanced by multimedia effects. When he enters, the set (designed by Cristina Todesco) is a mere black box with a ghost light and hanging ropes, but as he narrates he removes, from an old chest, ragged sheets that he clips to the ropes and then hoists to create the impression of sails. Onto these lighting and projection designer Garett Herzig casts a stirring array of visual images, including roiling seas and technicolored, snakelike turbulence, while sound designer Rick Lombardo, who also directed, provides a panoply of music and effects that greatly enrich the atmosphere.

Evett, shifting voices when necessary (not one of his strongest suits), delivers his lines in a nondescript regional British accent, moving from one emotional level to the other, now ironic, now tragic, now funny, now anguished. The 85-minute play, perhaps 15 minutes longer than it has to be, makes demands that test his endurance. When the rains begin pouring down on him late in the play, you’re happier for the actor than the character that he’s finally got water, water, everywhere.


59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59TH St., NYC
Through February 12