Entering the Cutting Ball Theater to see Ondine feels like entering another world. From the giant wave-shaped stage to the face-painted Jessica Waldman (Theater and Performance Studies, ‘15) running up the stage’s sides with Kenny Toll (who plays her love interest, Hildebrand),the space is transformed from a standard theater to a magical realm, one where water nymphs share sandwiches with alchemists and fall in love along the way.
The set is comprised of a stage resembling a skateboarder’s half pipe, with audience members sitting on either side. The stage–which has no flat surfaces, according to Producing Associate Artistic Director, Ariel Craft–is utilized flawlessly in the show, with fast paced entrances and exits from four different visible ladders, and well-choreographed use of the set’s three trap doors. This sort of stage, in conjunction with the lighting, creates a fishbowl inside of which the audience can see all. In a play “about world-building” (according to playwright Katherine Sherman’s program note), the set functions perfectly to introduce the audience to the world that Ondine and Hildebrand build together.
Vibrant light and sound choices further this environment, stopping beautifully short of overwhelming. Blue and green light washing over the actors remind us of Ondine’s life as a water nymph. The soundscape is ever present underneath the dialogue–so lovely and alive that it may as well have been a sixth cast member in the show–until the climax of the show, when Ondine curses Hildebrand for leaving her.
In most Ondine mythologies, Ondine’s beloved is cursed to never sleep again as punishment for his unfaithfulness. In this version, Hildebrand is cursed when he leaves Ondine alone to pursue his passion of alchemy. In this moment, it does not matter that Ondine is a water nymph and Hildebrand is an alchemist. The all-too-familiar feeling of wishing the worst on someone that you love the most because they left you behind is perfectly captured by Sherman’s haunting text. You, like Ondine, hope they hurt as badly as you do in their hands.
Waldman plays a water nymph learning her way around the human world perfectly. Her innocence and almost childlike enthusiasm in learning words such as “tea,” “cozy,” and the names of different body parts is a stunning reminder of what it feels like to fall in love–the world unfurling in front of you endlessly. This passion turns heartbreaking when Hildebrand leaves, and Waldman’s portrays Ondine’s spiral into loneliness with just as much enthusiasm.
Ondine’s heartbroken speech is accentuated by that of her three water sisters–Ice, Rain, and Mist. Molly Benson is especially gripping as Rain, but the trio (Marilet Martinez and Danielle O’Hare as Mist and Ice, respectively) altogether were entrancing, hypnotizing to watch. Their dialogue often overlaps both Ondine and each other’s, with words like “love,” “breath,” and “hello” repeated in a way that would make any English nerd itch to see a copy of the script. Despite a few misplaced terms of endearment and a few jarring curse words, the script remains the strongest point of the show.
True to Sherman’s word that Ondine is “an investigation of form,” the show follows a nonlinear timeline in addition to the multitude of overlapping lines. Unfortunately, this means that the plot of the show can remain obfuscated unless an audience-goer has previous existing knowledge of the myth of Ondine (helpfully shared in the program). For the same reason, the eventual death of Hildebrand and Ondine feels less sudden and more inevitable;the slow drifting to sleep after a long day. The show exists simply to ruminate on this couple’s love, not to draw us to their demise.
After all, as Sherman says, “a thing like love can make the mundane into magic, can turn lead into gold.” A slow death does not mean a slow show. I would happily watch this show many more times, tracing a different word through the show each time, knowing full well how the show ends. The well-written love of this couple turns a story that could feel anti-climatic into gold. Presented by The Cutting Ball Theater as part of their 2015-2016 “Dream Season,” Ondine is just that. A dream.
Photos courtesy of Rob Melrose