Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Katharine Sherman

The Cast of "Ondine"
A giant, molded, blue wave that peaks on both ends divides the arriving audience into two halves as a young man and woman -- both bare-footed, loosely clothed – silently cuddle, lounge separately, and run up the wave’s opposing crests, only to slide back down.  The dance-of-sorts continues a full fifteen minutes before the play actually begins, setting a tone for the next seventy minutes where the realms of reality and dream, awake and sleep, earth and sea mingle into mystical haze.  Taking a well-trod fairy tale revisited in many forms -- literary and dramatic -- since its original appearance in an 1811 novella (Undine by Fredrich de la Motte Fouqué), Katherine Sherman explores how unconnected to reality two people can be when deliriously lost in a first love.  Cutting Ball Theatre stages this world premiere in a form that often seems more like a choral poem of intertwined chants and soft movements than a developed play with plot line and dialogue.

Much of the traditional love story between a beautiful water spirit (or in Disney’s version, a mermaid) and a knight-errant remains in this latest iteration of the original novella.  Jessica Waldman as Ondine has been drawn out of her underwater abode by what seems as both insatiable curiosity about anything associated with humans and an evident infatuation with a curly-headed, soft-spoken Hildebrand (Kenny Toll).   This knight-of-sorts exudes youthful sincerity when describing his life mission to “transform matter, seeking perfection.”  On a more practical level, it seems he is actually looking for a solvent that will transform lead into gold.  All of this matters little to Ondine, who alternates between wanting to touch, caress, and kiss her boyish explorer-lover and diving with full splash into learning his language, how to make a good cup of tea, and what it takes to bake a delicious fruit tart.  (The sexual politics of the story, even in this latest script, is a bit hard to swallow as the male ventures out to change the world while the female just wants to be a good domestic companion.  Ouch.) 

As the story of old goes, our knight decides it is time to get back to his quest, leaving Ondine to keep testing her newly discovered eyelids (things not needed underwater) to see if when she closes/opens them, he will suddenly appear.  Things start going downhill at this point for her, and eventually boredom and anger will lead to a decision that will not bode well for Hildebrand or her when he finally does return.  The returning, exhausted knight finds that falling to sleep will mean death, and most of the rest of the play involves many ploys by Ondine to keep him awake.

Both of the key actors bring intense energy, a sense of spontaneity, and a walloping amount of tragic naiveté to Ondine and Hildebrand.  But with the script given them, there is only so far they can develop their characters.  Often their dialogue is short, choppy, and not saying a lot or it crosses into the more metaphorical, poetic realm that is mesmerizing and musical but not particularly intriguing.

Into Ondine’s world come three sisters of the sea:  Mist (Marilet Martinez), Ice (Danielle O’Hare, and Rain (Molly Benson).   Individually and collectively, they show up repeatedly to tell Ondine, “It’s time ... We miss you.”  They each pop out of the oddest places in Michael Locher’s innovative set.  They also come with their natural element in tow (enhanced by Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound and by Megan Finley’s costumes), willing to indulge a while with Ondine in chitchat and in the pleasures of a hot cup of tea or a fresh scone.  Together, they become a Greek-like chorus with full poetic phrases that warn and describe but do not say much even though they sound nice.  The synchronous swells of their half-submerged bodies (choreographed by Liz Tenuto) reenact their beloved sea.  The slow back and forth swaying combined with a choral flow that is more chant than conversation provide enough hypnotic powers to cause more than just a few yawns among the mesmerized (and maybe in some cases, bored at this point) audience.

Rob Melrose directs a world of dreams that proceeds in out-of-this-world manners to an expected ending that falls rather flat.  Like a state of half sleep, half awake, some of the dream is clear and interesting; and some of it fades into elements that cannot be quite recognized or understood.  As an art piece, Cutting Ball’s premiere of Ondine is an exhibit with some value in observing.  As a new play with a story that captures and holds attention with characters we come to know and care about, this Ondine falls short.

Rating: 3 E

Ondine continues through March 6, 2016 in world premiere by Cutting Ball Theatre at the Exit Theatre, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://cuttingball.com/productions/ondine/ .

Photo Credit: Rob Melrose

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