Albatross at New Rep (5 Stars)
*Michael Seiden and The Poets’ Theatre’s ‘Albatross’: Directed by Rick Lombardo; Written by Matthew Spangler & Benjamin Evett; Presented by New Repertory Theatre, May 21-24, 2015.*
“Sometime … there is no why.” That is a line New Repertory Theatre’s presentation of The Poets’ Theatre’s *Albatross* shares with us.
As audience members shuffle into their seats, we are privy to all items on the stage. There is no immense set. There are no closed curtains or backdrops. The stage is bare, save for the following: One ghost light. One ladder. Half a dozen ropes cascading from the rafters, ominously hanging as if they were hungry nooses.
The house goes to black, as does the ghost light, and Benjamin Evett’s entrance is made in darkness. He only holds a single flashlight, masking who this character is (it could be anyone) and truly focusing the audience on this one point. This one storyteller.
Those familiar with the metaphor of the albatross likely know its origin – *The Rime of the Ancient Mariner*. What Evett (sole performer and co-playwright) and Matthew Spangler (co-playwright) have done is create context and a story outside of what the poem provides. Evett is the ancient mariner, sharing the experience with the audience. When the flashlight turns off and the stage lights up once more, he speaks to us in remarkable Italian (among other languages). Suave and charming, this character immediately destroys the fourth wall and makes it clear that he is a narrator.
Throughout this ninety-minute performance, I witnessed an unreal transformation. This very personable narrator recounts the tale of the poem, but gradually gets swept up in the story himself. No longer is he purely sharing with us, he is re-enacting – so seamlessly. And another third of the way through the show, he nearly forgets about the audience, only getting a few lines directed at us, since he has fully changed from narrator to navigator. Becoming pre-occupied with what he is saying, we witness him actually relive the crazed and painful events that lead up to his initial appearance.
And Evett does this so tremendously. Not only do we see this confident man regress into a tormented husk, battered by natural forces and fate, but we audience members cannot help but fall for his spell. Despite being told we are a crowd of onlookers, once the navigator boards the figurative sailing ship, we become crewmembers. We are ensconced in the story. We are on the hull, seeing what he is seeing. We are barreling through the storm, feeling what he is feeling. “A knife’s edge between ordinary and tragedy.” Another telling line that Evett and Spangler share. The violence in this show, although only really manifesting in the mariner’s line delivery, is so vivid and on point. I found myself tilting my head or squirming in my seat. Did this man actually shove a captive into a barrel of vermin? No. Did we see these crew members actually resort to desperate measures to gather food and drink? No. But we don’t need to. Evett sells every word and every moving choice.
I mentioned earlier the lack of set, but that is only in the traditional sense. Within the opening minutes, the mariner uses the ropes to pull-up three sails. Those serve not only the story, but as screens for projections. Whether it was fire or water or crew members or crazed swirls of insanity, each visual element was just enough to supplement the words. Smart lighting design compartmentalized the stage, defining space as the full ship’s deck, a tortuous barrel, a beaten mast. Select moments of mist and fog, as well as subtle sound cues of gulls and shouting, all were very helpful. But supportive. Nothing took away from the performance of this one character. This one man.
And despite this mariner being our guide through the production, Evett switches his tone and accent to color life into other characters like the captain Black Dog or Roger. Although only hearing a few lines in those voices, they were well-rounded and distinct, filling the stage and the story.
I have not truly covered the story portion of this production, but – to be honest – I don’t think I need to. The full team behind this married so many elements to build something so convincing, so daunting and so fresh, that is reason enough to see it. I’d argue that is is not necessary to read *The Rime of the Ancient Mariner* prior to seeing the show, but go for it. At the very least you’ll remember the classic line, “Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” From me to you, however, there is plenty to drink in with this performance.