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Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Word for Word
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of The Great Wave

Charles Shaw Robinson and
Lucas Brandt

Photo by Hilary Goidell
At center stage of Word for Word's production of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner lies a platform suggestive of the skeletal remains of a wooden sailing ship: a flattened oblate, with the remains of framing elements jutting up from its edges like the exposed ribs of a rotting corpse—a fitting environment for this classic tale of one man's assault against nature, and the horrors visited upon him and his mates as mystic retribution.

If, for some reason, you are one of the few who was never exposed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic poem, it tells the story of a grizzled old seaman who has been cursed to wander the earth, relating his tale of a fateful voyage to all he can compel to listen.

As The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (written by Coleridge in the late 18th century) begins, the old Mariner (Charles Shaw Robinson, looking not unlike the character of Tim the Enchanter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) seizes the arm of one of a group of guests on their way to a wedding. Fittingly, it seems, before the young wedding guest sees his friends off on their voyage of matrimony, he must hear the tale of another journey that began with optimism and promise.

The ship sails south before a friendly wind, until a storm blows them to icy Antarctic waters. (In addition to the platform representing the ship, scenic designer Oliver DiCicco has placed two long, curving ramps that lead to a platform upstage, and hung a half-dozen sturdy ropes that descend and ascend as required, representing the ship's rigging.) In that forbidding Southern Ocean, the crew spy an albatross, and the bird leads them out of an ice jam to relative safety. Despite this, the Mariner (played as a younger sailor by Lucas Brandt) pulls out his crossbow and kills the bird.

Soon, all manner of curses begin to be visited on the ship and its crew: they become enveloped in mist and are pushed inexorably into equatorial waters, where they are becalmed in scorching heat with—in the poem's most-quoted line—"water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." To punish the Mariner for the crime they feel has brought them to this fate, the crew force him to wear the bird's body on a rope around his neck. After this, things get even worse: they encounter a ghost ship whose crew play dice for the souls of the Mariner's men who, seven days later, turn into something like zombies.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is sometimes seen as an allegory for man's crimes against nature. In our current crisis of climate, it's easy to draw parallels to the actions (and inaction) of humanity in this regard. But it's also possible to see The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as a metaphor for PTSD. the Mariner, like a soldier or sailor sent into battle, experiences all manner of dangers and deprivations, faces death on a near daily basis, and returns home to people who have not the tools nor experience to empathize with the horrors he has faced, leaving him to tell his tale to any who will listen in the faint hope it may somehow expiate the guilt he feels or heal the psychic scars he received on his quest.

As directed by Delia McDougall and Jim Cave, Word for Word's production has just the right mythic, otherworldly quality. The atmospheric projections and the slow, measured blocking/choreography are right in tune with Coleridge's lyrical verse. The cast of nine is well balanced, with costumes (by Nikki Anderson-Joy) that feel either vaguely ceremonial or vaguely maritime, and that reinforce a sense of mythic power.

As the Ancient Mariner, Charles Shaw Robinson is appropriately gaunt and weary. His sunken cheeks, slightly unkempt white beard, and piercing glare present his character as a man who has seen far more than he can adequately retell—and that inability to free himself of his experiences shows in every physical aspect of his character.

At just under an hour, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an easy voyage for its audience, but a searing theatrical experience nonetheless.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner runs through October 12, 2019, at Word for Word, Z Space, 450 Florida Street, in San Francisco's Dogpatch neighborhood. Performances are Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. Tickets range from $20-$50, and are available at or by calling 415-626-0453.