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‘Albatross’ makes fresh an ancient tale

You could say “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” sounds like the stuff of erstwhile school days’ reading assignments.

But one evening’s witnessing of the Penn State Centre Stage rendering of Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett’s “Albatross” visits one with much more than a tale. It’s nothing less than an amazing experience of live theater.

Evett himself is the one-actor show, telling the tale of the seafaring sailor who struggles with the forces of good and bad in the bleak 18thcentury seafarer’s life and in his own mind.

And this is hardly dry literature; Evett crosses the fourth wall at several moments to offer punchy asides to the audience.

The entire spectacle literally unfolds under his hand. As he gives context of time and place to the tale, Evett shifts into intriguing side quips only to be pulled by a greater force back to why he’s here, for the telling of his own harrowing story.

Connecting sections of rope together in seemingly random fashion, he then proceeds to pull this one and then another until the sails of a ship come together. These form the screen for a series of amazing and carefully shaped film backdrops, from rolling waves in front of Bristol, England to a darkened pub, clouds crossing the moon, churning seas, a ship ablaze and even being submerged in the ocean’s depths.

Through the tale and its conversations Evett inhabits a range of characters, from the bloodthirsty Black Dog to the mild mannered Roger.

Evett quite simply mesmerizes as the tale rambles in the blink of an eye through the mariner’s experiences of impulsive action, gentleness, cruelty, regret, loneliness. His recalling of his forlorn fellow sailors by first names is wrenching.

Spangler and Evett understand that not every theatergoer has read the famous Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. Some of the most familiar lines are delivered at key moments, and early on Evett even mocks the fact that the grisly tale was written in rhyme.

Even those familiar with the poem gain a fresh take of the albatross around one’s neck, a clear reference to how a poor decision can take one down severely.

That angle segues to a surprising aside from Evett with relevance to modern society’s own yawning at the mishandling of man’s relation to the creatures and environment of the natural world.

A heyday of sounds, fog and surreal lighting create a parade of chaos as the mariner’s fate spirals downward. Evett even has the viewer experiencing his own body’s reactions as the last drops of the only drink available – rum – are consumed.

The set design by Cristina Todesco is simple, calculated effectiveness, from the sails and tall ladder that Evett nimbly climbs to the rain that drenches his aching body. The carefully selected costume bits by Frances Nelson McSherry instantly transport Evett and the viewer to this other world. And Ari Herzig’s lighting is deft at creating a compelling mood, whether calm or tempestuous.

Director Rick Lombardo worked with Spangler and Evett on the original production that debuted in Boston in 2015 and won two Elliott Norton awards. The modest stage of the Downtown Theatre in State College aptly contains the tale’s tumult and power.

Be forewarned, the language, well, it’s as salty as a sailor’s might be.

Heading home through quiet streets, this viewer was made to see and treasure each tree, sound, moonbeam and living being for the precious vestiges of reality they represent.

The play is at 8 p.m. July 17-20 at the Penn State Downtown Theatre, Penn State University, 146 S. Allen St, State College.

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