Friday, May 22, 2015

Albatrosss by Matthew Spangler & Benjamin Evett

Albatrosss by Matthew Spangler & Benjamin Evett
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre – May 21-24
Reviewed by Lawrence Kessenich

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a classic of Romantic poetry. The long narrative poem tells the story of an old sailor doomed to tell his tale of woe to all those he recognizes as needing to hear it, for the rest of his life. Although it’s a sad and disturbing tale, the poetic rhythms of Coleridge’s narrative allow us—at least, today—to keep some distance from the story. For the most part, Albatross, a one man show originally produced by the Poets’ Theatre and now at the New Rep (but only for four days!), mostly strips away the poetry to reveal the gritty tale of an 18th century sailor that the Fates deal with most unkindly.

This is not a Romantic sailor, in any way—except, perhaps when he first appears on stage spouting Italian, not being immediately aware that he’s in front of an English-speaking audience. There is some bawdy humor in this opening, humor one comes to wish would appear more often in what devolves into a nasty tale of selfishness, violence, pain, and suffering.

Our sailor’s Irish-accented narrative is liberally sprinkled with the adjective “fuckin” (and when he senses this might be too much for some of his listeners, the sailor reminds us of the expression, “Swears like a…”). At the outset, his “fuckin” son is on his deathbed, his body covered with lesions, his “fuckin” wife is a stinking drunk, and Bristol, where he lives, is a “fuckin shithole.”

But things go from bad to worse quickly, when someone gets our sailor drunk, knocks him out, and throws him on a ship bound for South America. The ship’s captain is a nasty piece of work, known for biting with his canine-like teeth—and we’re treated to more that one unnecessarily graphic story of his use of those teeth. (In fact, be forewarned that there are many parts of this story that are not for the faint of heart, involving faces being beaten in, torture via vermin, blackened frostbitten toes, loss of limbs, drinking urine to slake thirst, vomiting, and so on.)

The trip to South American goes well enough at first, although there’s not much pleasant about shipboard life as described by our sailor. The crew feels lucky when it spots a Spanish galleon and gives chase. But this is the spooky ship of the poem, which, when finally captured, much further south than expected, turns out to be manned by a crew of one. The attack on the ship—which manages to fire back, despite its crew of one—is described in the kind of detail usually reserved for naval adventure tales, complete with sound and lighting effects. Gold in great quantity is found on board—enough to make every crewman rich—but, as we know from the poem, all goes south (so to speak) after that.

On the other hand, this sailor’s life has been miserable from the start of the play, so I have to admit that I got a bit tired of one thing after another going wrong for this guy. Someone once said that “there’s a fine line between sympathy and disgust,” and there’s also a fine line between sympathy and boredom, and I finally found myself a bit tired of this mariner’s woes. I blame the script for this, because Benjamin Evett, the actor who portrays our sailor, certainly puts heart and soul into his character. It’s one of the most energetic performances I’ve ever seen, with Evett bounding about the stage, not only making the mariner come alive, but portraying all kinds of secondary characters with perfect definition.

Another oddity to be prepared for—although the script makes it work—is that our sailor is alive in the contemporary world, making references to things like cell phones and recent historical events. And he’s not ancient, just middle-aged, despite the fact that he’s apparently been telling his tale around the world since the 18th century. It’s all a part of the “willing suspension of disbelief” for this play, which I found easy enough to do.

The attempt to connect the story with the contemporary ecological crisis felt forced to me—although it’s pretty much tacked on near the end, anyway, so the attempt isn’t all that forceful. What’s somewhat more moving, as it is in the famous poem, is our nasty sailor’s realization that he needs to pray for all the people and things—including himself—that he’s been abusing all his life. Evett, finally quiet for a moment, delivers this moment of conversion with real heart.

Tickets for Albatross are available at but if you want to see it, you’d better hurry, because it’s only a 4-day run this weekend!

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