When Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798, readers met the poem with overwhelming disapproval for its oddness and archaic diction. Nearly 20 years later, Coleridge published an updated version of the poem in which he included supplementary notes, or a gloss, providing insight into the supposed significance behind the topsy-turvy verses. Yet for all the explications de texte it provided, some critics — including Charles Lamb, an early supporter of the work — claimed that it only made the poem less immediately accessible to readers, beating its vivid language to death with extrapolation.
It’s fair to say that Lamb wouldn’t enjoy Z Space’s theatrical rendition of the poem much more than he did its second iteration. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a live performance of Coleridge’s work that includes a cast of nine as well as snazzy lighting and sound effects, opened Friday at the theater’s San Francisco Mission District warehouse-style home base. Although the play is meant as an ecological parable of sorts, the production loses the innate hypnotism of Coleridge’s words via excessive fanfare and exaggeration.
For those whose high school English classes excluded this fantastical fever dream from their repertoires, here is a brief summary: “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is Coleridge’s epic poetic account of a weathered seafarer who interrupts an unnamed wedding guest to tell the latter of his adventures at sea. We learn how the mariner shot a lucky albatross that graced the ship, bringing the wrath of the natural world upon himself and his men.
It’s worth noting Z Space’s curatorial rationale for the selection of this particular poem: It’s made abundantly clear that it’s meant to demonstrate that nature does, in the end, bite back when wronged. The lobby through which audience members pass to reach the main stage has been crafted into a mini exhibition of environmental advocacy in its own right. Amid images of melting ice caps, blazing fires and dry reservoirs — along with quotations asserting, for instance, the “uncontrollable forces” of the natural world — hangs a photograph of the decomposing body of an albatross, its carcass filled with bits of plastic.
Any exigency of the current climate catastrophe that the show might have set out to achieve, however, loses potency in the overwhelming cheesiness of its delivery. In addition to the human players laid out by the poem (the mariner, the wedding guest, the hermit, etc.), this production chooses to personify the environmental and spiritual forces that guide and waylay the mariner during his voyage. Not only does Coleridge, along with some bright stage lights, inform us that the sun bears down on the sailors, but we also see the Sun himself (Darryl V. Jones) strut onstage in full golden regalia. The same is true for the Moon (Patricia Silver) and the Polar Spirit (Randall Wong).
This lack of confidence in the audience’s ability to interpret the poem in its own terms is a repeating theme throughout this production that, given its exorbitant character count and tendency to tell much more than show, comes off as trying hard to overcompensate. For what remains unclear, the play’s own insecurity and need to spell out the appropriate reception to its audience can’t clearly be attributed to a lack of talent on the part of the cast or crew.
Charles Shaw Robinson, for one, is superbly cast as the ancient mariner — “bright-eyed” as the mariner should be. And with set designers Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally at the helm, the performance space ingeniously blurs the line between audience and performer, with the theater’s sloped seating resembling the back end of the boat, the body of which we see on the stage. And the decision to double-cast Lucas Brandt as both the wedding guest and the young version of the mariner fosters a further sense of immersion in the story. As the sailors pull him aboard the ship, the production prompts us to find ourselves touched by the tale as well.
On the whole, however, with all its exclaiming, emoting and excessive use of literal imagery, Z Space’s adaptation of this epic poem does not entrance as much as it should, considering the source material. As Lamb might have said, it spells out what should be left up to audience interpretation, breaking the spell of Coleridge’s original work. The fact that it does so while also advocating for climate change reform and hosting events on zero waste living and eco-poetry in conjunction with the performance makes this version of “Rime” commendable — but not recommendable.
‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is playing at Z Space in San Francisco through Oct. 12.
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].