For the second time this week, I’ve seen a black-box theater/one-man show, featuring a singular, titanic, wrecking-crew of a howling, flailing, roaring, crawling, running around, climbing up stuff, swinging from the rafters, sweating, moaning, copious-Cornish-accented-cursing creature of showbiz.
That’s “Albatross,” an interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” And here we have the titular Mariner, traveling around, telling his tale, in real time.
The play co-written by Benjamin Evett (also performing) and Matthew Spangler, and directed by Rick Lombardo, is running for one month exactly, starting Jan. 12 at 59E59 Theaters.
Setting the Stage
From a distance, Evett looks like a curly-haired, Falstaffian version of Nick Nolte circa 15 years ago, and all I can say is this: We should all be so lucky to have this man’s energy, at his age. I felt winded after five minutes. 2017 resolution: work on my cardio.
Setting the stage is what he does, literally, for the first 10 minutes: breaking the fourth wall, walking around, and rigging carabiners to what look like giant rags but, when hoisted by stage rope and pulley, transform into a series of ship sails. These function as the backdrop/screen upon which to project fire, inclement weather, and other more impressionist structures and swirling movement. It’s good stage business, and produces a nice effect.
The Mariner makes lots of fun of the audience (“You Upper Eastsiders!”) in the commedia dell’arte tradition, in which the traveling troupe would arrive in town early and hang out, eavesdropping on local gossip and later working choice tidbits into that evening’s show. Which goes hand in hand with that other tradition of theater: theatergoers willingly taking verbal abuse from actors for things they know deep down they should feel shame about, but refuse to let surface into consciousness outside the confines of the church-of-theater.
There follows a fair amount of neck-craning and talking to “The Almighty,” a la Stephen the Irishman in “Braveheart” (“The Spirits say I’m swearin’ too much. But … you know, I’m a sailor!”). And then he gets into his story: how he came to be … The Mariner. From here, he sets the stage more broadly; up the ladder he goes to survey the seaport town for us—the coming and going of tobacco, silk, coffee, and the middle passage ships with their cargo of humans.
Telling His Tale
Turns out, he was duped, this Mariner. He was out drinking at the Drunken Duck, leaving his chronically inebriated wife to tend to their sick-unto-death son, when a false, Wormtongue-type associate, Roger, “put opium in me pint.” Next thing he knew, there he was, sailing down to South America on the deck of Black Dog’s privateer frigate (often piratical)—as the navigator.
“You go out for one drink! [Then a stage whisper aside: “Shut up!” (he’d earlier related to the audience that he’d had four drinks)] And see what happens?!”
Down the ship goes to the Falkland Islands; Black Dog has a side gig collecting animals, and wants some penguins. There’s a storm! There’s some piracy! The crew cut a captured passenger with knives and seal him in a container, screaming, with rats and roaches. There’s also the biting off of body parts, noses and such, by crazed sailors.
“Is it too much?” the Mariner hollers at the audience of Upper Eastsiders. “Yes!” a few coiffed ladies erupt instinctively. It is, in fact, all a bit much.
But the Mariner carries on, and now we’re in the stages of the Rime-frost covered ship, gliding ghost-like through mist and snow; the storied albatross, that spirit guide—arrives. Then, deadly, baking sun! And the horrid, black ship approach-eth; hellish serpents crawl upon the sea, and soon there’s a game of dice between the skeletal Death and the ghastly, pallid, “Life-in-Death,” the infernally glaring maiden, as they vie for the Mariner’s soul.
Evett’s down to his sweaty long johns now. (I said he was Falstaffian but he’s actually somewhat buff without the bulky clothes—turns out it’s more a Falstaffian demeanor.) He’s talking about drinking the last of the rum, and then drinking an ever-darkening series of urine cups, to survive. Also gnawing on live and raw penguins. “Arrrrr!” he intones. “Gross!” the UES ladies shudder.
So why are Death and Life-in-Death after the Mariner? He’d wantonly shot the albatross (and trodden upon its head, accompanied by scrunching sounds). Is it too much? Yes! But as we reach the final stages, the pure lines of Coleridge’s poem start to come through more often, unsullied, like a stream of fresh water washing away the fouler embellishments. Kind of a relief.
The Mariner laments to the spirits, “What did I do? I killed a bird!” Yes, but the spirits loved the albatross, who loved this man. And now there’s beaucoup karma to pay.
There’s more to the tale, about arriving home to a house burnt to cinders and being cursed unto the end of his days to walk the earth and tell his story to those who are in need of hearing it.
But the main update to the story, besides the made-up, “in the words of the actual Ancient Mariner” perspective, is this one thing: We humans are killing albatrosses as we speak. And there will be karma to pay.
Evett has converted this story, best known to children as the haunting, exquisite 1876 illustrations of Gustave Dore, into an environmental tale, and he has expanded it to encompass all of humanity.
He laments our wanton abuse of the planet—resulting in Exxon-crude covered pelicans, dead coral reefs, sea turtles with Budweiser six-pack rings squeezing their guts, and albatross chicks ingesting bright blue bottle caps. It has all ultimately led to the fulfillment of Bob Dylan’s prescient 1962 lyric, “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.” That’s the message. A tremendous, if obvious, message.
Like “House of the Rising Sun,” the Mariner warns, “Don’t do what I have done.” “The Rime” is a cautionary tale and a call to take the enlightenment path, much like the Norwegian folk epic “The Dream Song of Olaf Asteson.”
Do you want to go hear this message handed to you, heavily? Heavy-handedly? Are you masochistically jones-ing for the theater equivalent of boxed ears? Then come and sit in the front row. Even taking a back row seat (where I sat) will result in a shortness of breath and chest ache.
As mentioned, Evett’s got gale-force power; it’s a bit much for a small theater. Black Dog in a black box? Biting off pieces of someone’s shoulder, swallowing them, and then blowing chunks? “Is it too much?” You be the judge.
But Evett “knows his song well before he starts singing”: We should not throw our trash in the world’s oceans! Come feel the shame you should! Tell it, Ben!
59 E. 59th St., Second Floor
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59E59.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: Feb. 12