The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Also see Richard's review of The Cockfighter
Normally, Upstream Theatre gets a lot of its mysterious, other-worldly vibe from the live music of soloist Farshid Soltanshahi, playing a variety of instruments off to one side during many of their shows. But this time the feeling is unexpectedly majestic, summoning up all the rage of the sea, with the rock accompaniment of the duo known as Sleepy Kitty. I love what Mr. Soltanshahi does for Upstream Theatre, but the change (including many excellent sung-through passages from the epic poem) adds great sweep and swagger.
Jerry Vogel is great as the Mariner, voyaging down to explore the legend of Antarctica in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 rhyming story. Utterly ruined, and finally redeemed, the Mariner and his shipmates (played with great variety by Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer) run afoul of wind and water. And when they're not stunned by what they're seeing you can feel their desperation, drifting under lifeless sails.
As you may remember, the Mariner tries to solve the curse of the windless seas with an ill-advised shot from his crossbow, hitting a very particular seabird. And instead of breaking their bad luck, things get even worse. In one of the show's best combinations of epic poem and rock anthem, a great black ship soon appears on the horizon, captained by an angel of death. The results are not good.
Paige Brubeck, one half of the musical duo, is searing as Death; and Evan Sult (her partner) dons a sort of chainmail veil to add to the sense of foreboding in that fantastic scene. Projections on the backdrop, from the original engravings by Gustav Dore, add to the sense of implacable fate. Other memorable scenes include the arrival at southern canyons of ice, and the haunting presence of the seabird.
Patrick Siler directs, with help from choreographer Cecil Slaughter, and the movement on stage (from the hypnotic rocking of the ship to the zombie-like change in the crew) is extremely effective, heightening the anguish of all on board. Usually music supports any story, but here the live accompaniment adds sway and sets our hearts pounding, allowing Coleridge's lyrical writing to burst forth to an amplified beat.
Which is not to take anything away from the actors, who begin with a great sea shanty, rousing and upbeat. Mr. Vogel's face is, by turns, handsome and as complicated as a fishing netperfect for storytelling as things grow strange, then deadly. And the fact that his hair is longish and gray now, amidst all the powerful music, makes it all even more of a theatrical concert experiencelike some grand old rock legend, making one last, impossible tour.
Through April 19, 2015, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand (between Saint Louis University and the Fox Theatre). For more information visit www.upstreamtheater.org.
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association (the union of professional actors and stage managers in the US)
** Denotes Equity Membership Candidate