There was a ship. Its canted deck rose up from a green surface skeined with whorls and bubbles. Behind, a sail rose into the sky; off to one side, a rope ladder climbed toward the rigging. It was docked inside the Kranzberg Arts Center, and we were to bear witness to its final voyage, a journey that would change all who saw its passage from this world.
That nameless ship was designed by Kyra Bishop, and it serves as the entire set for Patrick Siler's gorgeous adaptation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Siler, who also directs, has attempted a synthesis of poetry, theatricality and music that results in a totality of pure storytelling. The Ancient Mariner, the ship, the desolate realm on the brink of life and death, Coleridge's message of love for all things on earth -- they are overwhelmingly alive in a small black-box theater for as long as the spell lasts, and they linger long afterward in memory.
Jerry Vogel is the Mariner, his blue eyes bright with the need to tell his story. He interrupts a wedding party to share his tale, and the wedding guests (Patrick Blindauer and Shanara Gabrielle) become sailors on the ill-fated ship. Blown off course by a storm, the crew find themselves in Antarctica; a lone albatross sails before them. This albatross is portrayed by a gray, diaphanous scarf, which is fluttered across the sea by Gabrielle. The Mariner shoots it with his crossbow, and as the bird flickers and shudders on the deck, he stomps on its neck with finality. When the ship is becalmed and runs out of water, the crew blames the Mariner. The albatross' corpse is draped around his neck, and then things get metaphysical.
The action is abetted by projections of Gustave Doré's engraved illustrations for the poem, which fill the sail behind the players. The band Sleepy Kitty (Paige Brubeck on guitar and keyboard, Evan Sult on drums and occasional guitar) enhances the proceedings immensely with music and unearthly sound effects.
The duo also play key roles in the onstage action. After seven days of starvation and dehydration on the windless sea, the ship is visited by Death and Life-in-Death. Sult, hooded and his face veiled by a tattered gray cloth, plays Death; Brubeck, veiled in white, is Life-in-Death. A menacing guitar riff that becomes a Peggy-Lee-cum-Bad-Seeds vamp presages their arrival. Behind her veil, Brubeck keens, "Who's it gonna be?" with ferocity.
The pair play dice for the lives of all on board, and Death wins everyone except the Mariner. Brubeck's shrieks of joy -- "I won! I won, I won, I won!" spiral into the night. Things look grim indeed for the Mariner. Blindauer and Gabrielle form a small line and then step forward again and again, their heads dropping with finality to a single drum beat as Death claims his prizes. It is a moment of sublime horror.
As for the Mariner, still alive in a lifeless realm, he must press on still further before he reaches safety. Coleridge, burdened by his opium addiction, tangles his twin themes of God's love and ecological responsibility in phantasmagorical visions of dead crew members coming back to life, visitations from seraphs and a cacophonous shipwreck. That wreck is the only time that the band drowned out the cast, which was strangely fitting.
And the bulk of the audience didn't seem to mind. A large percentage of the crowd was there primarily for Sleepy Kitty, judging by the rousing applause the band received for walking across stage to the instruments. Clearly Sleepy Kitty's work resonates more fully with a modern audience than Coleridge's Romantic poetry does. Yet the audience may have left with a better appreciation for Coleridge's genius, which is done great service by Siler and a supremely talented cast.
Ultimately, the Mariner reaches home. What saves him is his unforced love for the aquatic dances of a pair of sea snakes. Blindauer and Gabrielle again play these roles, this time in blue-green halters and capes, swirling off the bow of the ship.
When he finds the shore again, the Mariner is compelled to share this hard-won message."He prayeth best, who loveth best/all things both great and small/for the dear God who loveth us/He made and loveth all," he sings, with Blindauer and Gabrielle joining in. Vogel's face is illuminated by beatific joy, his eyes shining as he sings the lines.
The play ends with the Mariner handing mysterious cards to members of the audience, and walking out of the theater and into the night. For the tale must be spread, and only the Mariner knows what the stakes are.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Through April 19 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard. Tickets are $20 to $30. Call 314-863-4999 or click here.