Monday, September 23, 2019

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: ☼ ☼

Let it be said in advance that this reviewer has a conflict of interest. I love Word For Word. I generally receive more than I expect and in almost every circumstance end up floored by both the ensemble of actors and the immense task of taking a story and mounting it, word for word, on a theater stage.

That said: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is not W4W's finest moment. Clearly, the company realized something was up when they tried to take the shooting of the albatross, the great moral lesson of the 1798 Samuel Coleridge poem, and tie it into climate change as well as the destruction of native American lands. It doesn't work. The poem is arcane, the language is ancient and difficult to decipher and the bringing down of the albatross, in light of the corruption and misery we observe every minute of our lives here in 2019, seems like pretty small potatoes.

Word For Word shows are almost always magical. We found this one ponderous. Coleridge is known to have been an opium fanatic. The skeptic (me), says: "Dude smoked a lot of opium and saw God."

The skeptic's wife says, "I loved the staging."

Critic agrees. Oliver DiCicco and Colm McNally's set, a representation of the open prow of an ancient sailing ship, which also turns into a coffin, is marvelous to view as we file into the theater. It sets the stage for what follows, as the actors parade down a ramp and into the ship.

Charles Shaw Robinson is an excellent Ancient Mariner, but, for us, the rest of the cast is a blur. Directors Delia MacDougall and Jim Cave appear to have been trying hard to figure out how a cast of nine can all speak one poem. Their solution is to have one person speak a few words and then someone else speak one or two, with a third person finishing the line or short stanza. The result is the words themselves lack power as we are concentrating on figuring out whose mouth is moving on stage.

The problem is magnified by the sound system, wherein each actor is miked into a large overhead speaker, with the result being all the voices come from overhead and not from the actor. It is very difficult to bond with an actor whose voice is separated from his body, especially when the words are in 1798 English and the actor does little but stand in one place and mouth a few words at a time.

We generally love Teddy Hulsker's Projection Designs, but this time not so much. Who were those people, anyway, with the white robes and the sun shining behind them? Jesus? Mary? We think so, but one of them looked a lot like Pat Silver. The one line that sticks with us is not the famous one ("Water! Water! Nor any drop to drink!") but instead what Coleridge said about his fantasy woman: "...her skin was as white as leprosy."


The San Francisco Theater Blog gives "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" Two Stars. We understand that this rating places the show below the Mendoza Line (see sidebar for explanation). We applaud Word For Word, as always, for taking chances no one else takes. But ask any ancient mariner. If you go fishing enough times, sooner or later you will not haul up enough for dinner.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"
A Word For Word Production
Z Space (upstairs)
450 Florida Street, San Francisco
Through Oct. 12

Monday, September 9, 2019

Exit Strategy: ☼ ☼

Some very good performances come close to rescuing Ike Holter's "Exit Strategy." This tale about the enforced closing of a Chicago public school tries to hit all the right themes -- unequal education, racism, gentrification, poverty, even the results of a suicide. But in the end none get dealt with in anything but the most simplistic manner. We know from the moment the show begins how it is going to end. Here we are in 2019 and Mr. Holter's lesson appears to be: "Give Up. Do Nothing. You Have No Chance."

Margo Hall has a short role as a disgruntled black teacher dealing with a clueless white administrator. We like her a lot, as always, but she is in and then out, except for two subsequent short appearances which add very little to the story. Ricky, the administrator, is played by Adam Niemann. Dense, socially inept and gay, Ricky is also carrying on a secret affair with Luce (Ed Gonzalez Moreno). Ricky is a mess. He may be trying to be a hero, or he may be a traitor. We never know.

We get the spicy Latina (Gabriella Fanuele), the disgruntled old man (Michael J. Asberry) and the loud-talking big-heart (Sam Jackson). All are fine actors, but no one has much to offer to the resolution of this story. Only Donnie (Tre'vonne Bell), a High School Senior who appears to be the one person in the school who understands the internet, has any plan at all.

The big problem is we never find out what that plan is. Everything happens off stage. And maybe it is successful and maybe it isn't, but none of this matters. As we keep being reminded, victory is not possible. The man triumphs. The poor lose. The only way out is a bullet in the head. Geez, what a depressing story.


As you can tell, The San Francisco Theater Blog is in a grumpy mood. We award "Exit Strategy" Two Stars, one for James Ard's very cool sound track and one for Kate Boyd's painfully accurate teacher's lounge. 

Art is not supposed to make you feel good. It is meant to challenge. We wish we weren't familiar with the issues written about here - but we are. We don't feel challenged by "Exit Strategy." It just makes us sad.

"Exit Strategy"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Through Sep 29