WILLIAMSTOWN -- In his epic poem "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," Samuel Taylor Coleridge painted an otherworldly picture of hardship on the seas, widely read in classrooms -- the story of the lost ship with "water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink."
To ethereal and earthy songs by British avant garde band The Tiger Lillies, photographer Mark Holthusen's projected sea monsters and mermaids will swim across the ‘62 Center stage tonight, bringing the story to life with theatrical echoes of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill.
Two telephone conversations spanned the time zones between San Francisco-based Holthusen and Tiger Lillies founder Martyn Jacques, briefly in England before touring France.
For 25 years, the band -- countertenor Jacques playing accordion, Adrian Stout on guitar and theremin, and Mike Pickering currently serving a stint on drums -- has toured the globe, performing in offbeat and mainstream venues from Australia and the Americas to Shanghai and Siberia.
Music transcends language barriers, Jacques explained. Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf are his favorite singers.
"I don't speak their language, but I just enjoy the music," he said.
English-speaking Europeans tend to be more progressive, younger and intellectual, he said.
"Conservative, religious people don't really know what I'm singing about," he said, which, considering his raw lyrics, "works really, really well."
The band's subversive and surreal song repertoire joins an unlikely stable of children's musicals.
"Shockheaded Peter," a dark, award-winning adaptation of German children's stories, toured internationally to critical acclaim.
As a working class kid from Slough near London, Jacques' cultural influences were avant garde films rather than middle-class theater. When his neighbor gave him an album of Brecht and Weill's "The Threepenny Opera" with Lenya, "that was my revelation, my artistic inspiration," he recalled.
"I've always liked the subject of the sea, the mythology of mermaids, the violent, seedy, dangerous lives sailors lived," he explained.
His album of a dozen years ago, "The Sea," he feels is one of his best.
Adapting "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" was a natural progression; "it's like some opium-driven nightmare," he said.
He follows a long tradition of creating work from a dark perspective.
"That's what Hogarth and Dickens did," he said. "All these artists going back to ancient Greece, they've always written about strange subjects and marginal people. I'm no different."
Renowned advertising photographer Mark Holthusen had photographed the band earlier when Jacques asked him to create a music video of "Rime" and turn it into a show.
"I fell in love with the process," Holthusen said. He had projected a simpler slide show behind the orchestra for an opera by Pink Floyd's Roger Waters, and he wanted to take the format farther.
"With my advertising photography, I was always trying to tell an entire narrative in a frame," he said. In a live show, "I could put the pictures on a timeline and give them room to breathe."
"I locked onto this idea of doing baroque theater, prefilming all the characters and cast," he said.
At first audiences feel they have to follow it, he said, "then, within five minutes, they give up and just sit back and soak it in. That's the way to watch it."
It's not so much a direct narrative as Jacques' interpretation of the poem, Holthusen explained, and he visually builds a world around that.
Originally trained as a sculptor, Holthusen career took off when he started handmaking miniature sets and photographing people in them using Photoshop.
"It was when I was able to combine those two loves that I really found a voice," he said. "I'm almost a collage artist at this point."
Now his intricate visual creations have found a way to move.
"It's opened up a whole new field of work for me," Holthusen observed. "I'm waiting for other people to define it; I just keep doing it."
To add to the look, Jacques performs with thick makeup, creating an exaggerated, dissolute appearance that changes through the years.
In his early career, he would sing with eyes closed to shut out the "horrible bars and an audience of seven people and a dog," he said. "I would imagine singing in a beautiful theater, being listened to by thousands of people."
In "Rime," he performs sandwiched between two projection screens. In a twist of irony, he explained he can't actually see the audience. Until the curtain call, that is.
If you go ...
What: The Tiger Lillies' ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner'
When: Tonight at 8
Where: ‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown
Admission: $10 adults, $3 students
Information: 62center.williams.edu (413) 597-2425
Free Integrated Programming:
Cocktails and Context: Macabre Musicals, Subversive Singing,
Discussion with Williamstown Theatre Festival director Jenny Gersten
and Williams College Theatre Department Chair David Eppel.
Where: CenterStage Lobby, 6:30 p.m.
Tiger Lillies post show Q & A with Mark Holthusen, moderated by Professor of Art Liza Johnson, 10 p.m.