Albatross soars at Gloucester Stage

23Jun16

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By MARK SARDELLA

Whether or not you have read or studied Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, you are undoubtedly familiar with a few of the phrases and idioms that the work gave to the English language.

“Water, water, every where,/ Nor any drop to drink,” is one. But the metaphor of an albatross around one’s neck has become an English language idiom referring to a heavy burden of guilt that becomes an obstacle to success.

“Albatross,” the current one-man play at Gloucester Stage Company, is both a retelling and an extension of Coleridge’s epic poem. Co-written by Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett (who also performs as the mariner) the play appends to the poem a prologue that explains how the mariner got on board the ship.

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In the play, Evett’s mariner is an Irishman in the Bristol, England of some unspecified time who one night decides to seek respite from the bedside of his dying son and his drunk, nagging wife by repairing to the local pub for just one pint. There he meets an acquaintance who he knows to be a ruthless recruiter of men for long sea voyages. The mariner refuses the man’s repeated requests to join a ship’s crew, but allows him to ply him with one pint after another. The last one, he suspects, was spiked with opium, as he awakens aboard a ship at sea.

evett3From there, the play stays fairly close the tale told in Coleridge’s poem, although the mariner in the play manages to incorporate occasional present day references. And those references come across as quite natural, given that the mariner is a sort of timeless figure, perpetually undead and doomed to repeat his story to anyone who will listen. Telling his story is the only momentary respite the mariner gets from his anguished existence.

Despite a good start to the voyage, the ship is driven south by a storm and eventually becomes stuck in icy Antarctic waters. An albatross appears out of the fog and is fed by the mariner and the ship’s crew. The bird leads them out of the ice jam and into more hospitable waters and stays with the ship day and night.

One day, the mariner inexplicably (“Sometimes there is no why”) shoots and kills the albatross with a crossbow. He is cursed by his shipmates for killing the bird that brought such good fortune. But when the ship sails into even better weather, they reverse themselves and believe the killing of the bird brought them luck.

But their praise of the mariner’s deed angers the spirits, who visit all manner of misfortune on the ship and its crew for the remainder of the voyage, and the crew once again turns on the mariner for shooting the bird, forcing him to hang it from his neck.

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It is for others far more erudite than I to analyze and dissect the metaphors and symbolism as the play explores themes of personal responsibility and reaping what one sows.

The key to this play is Evett’s mesmerizing performance as the mariner. You become the latest person to whom he must tell his tale, and like all those before, you could not stop yourself from being drawn in even if you wanted to.

mariner5Evett’s mariner is by turns funny, sad, manic, tortured, exhilarated and exhausted. And Evett makes the audience feel all those things in a riveting performance recounting the seaman’s doomed voyage filled with sea battles, storms, sea monsters and spirits.

Together, Evett and director Rick Lombardo succeed in creating a theatrical experience that combines the best of ancient and modern storytelling, using video projection and immersive sound to enhance the experience.

Cristina Todesco’s spare set consists of little more than a seaman’s trunk, a few tattered sails, ropes and sand bags. But that’s more than Evett or the audience needs, because Evett brings the story to life less on stage than in the mind and imagination of each audience member, where he creates an entire world.

And there it remains long after Evett takes his bows.

Albatross runs through July 3 at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St., Gloucester, Mass. Performances are Wednesday, though Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Purchase tickets online or phone 978-281-4433.

[ALBATROSS, by Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett. Directed by Rick Lombardo. Lighting and projection, Garrett Herzig. Costume Design, Frances Nelson McSherry. Stage Manager, Leslie Sears. Set Design, Cristina Todesco.]

All Photos by Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photography

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