‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ a vivid, cautionary tale

Word for Word brings Coleridge’s epic poem to life

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Word for Word’s jewel-like staging of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, is a slight detour from the acclaimed company’s usual contemporary literary short stories (or sometimes chapters of novels), in which the text is dispersed verbatim among the actors in insightful and often idiosyncratic ways.

Here, using the same method (word for word, indeed), the nine-member cast, directed by Jim Cave and Delia MacDougall, re-creates a 1798 classic.

The production draws patrons into “Rime” sensorially, almost hypnotically, partly thanks to the superb design team.

The set (by Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally) features a boat-shaped, rotating platform bookended by long, curved ramps plus an upstage elevated platform, and the sound (Matt Stines) and lighting (Ray Oppenheimer) propel the poem off the page as if in 3-D; theatergoers can almost smell the dank salt water, feel the life-saving breeze that ultimately steers the becalmed ship.

The incantatory poetry itself might wash over viewers at times, for better or for worse, but at other times, it’s electrifying.

A gray-bearded Charles Shaw Robinson is the burning-eyed captain who accosts a young man (Lucas Brandt) who’s on his way to attend a wedding. The ancient mariner is compelled to tell him the story of his traumatic sea voyage: how he killed the albatross that guided the ship through an ice floe and thus evoked the wrath of the natural spirits.

Parched (“Water water everywhere/Nor any drop to drink”), the crew died, leaving the captain alone, forever haunted.

In transforming the wedding guest into a character in the drama — the mariner himself as a young man — and also turning the wedding bride (Patricia Silver) into the spirit of the moon and creating a part-time narrator (Darryl V. Jones) who’s the spirit of the sun, the poem is enriched. Even the albatross is glimpsed as a ghostly, melancholy spectre (and when killed, as a seaweedy macramé concoction draped around the young mariner’s neck).

In a particularly enthralling scene, the actors — including such talents as Robert Ernst and Leontyne Mbele-Mbong —rise from death, zombie-like, to once again man the rigging, their movements throughout elegantly choreographed (by Nol Simonse).

This is a two-centuries-old cautionary tale, as Z Space Artistic Director Lisa Steindler remarked on opening night: We disrespect the natural world at our own peril.

REVIEW

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Presented by Word for Word Performing Arts Company/Z Space

Where: Z Space, 450 Florida St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, closes Oct. 12

Tickets: $20 to $50

Contact: (866) 811-4111, zspace.org

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