“Stay awake!” Ondine repeatedly insists. She and her lover Hildebrand tell stories, slap each other, and run around to avoid the lure of sleep. Fortunately, Katharine Sherman’s play is gripping enough that we audience members need not resort to such drastic measures.
Ondine is a water nymph who leaves the ocean and falls in love with a knight-alchemist. Resisting the call of the water, she chooses to stay on land for the sake of her love. But her knight leaves her to pursue his alchemical research. She curses him: when he sleeps, he will stop breathing and die. He returns from his journey shortly afterwards, but she cannot reverse her curse.
Sherman has written a gem of a show.
At Cutting Ball Theater, this love story is presented in short, poetic bursts. This is both the play’s greatest strength and its biggest shortcoming. Sherman’s pithy scenes carry a punch, but brief dialogues make for many transitions, and the show sometimes loses momentum between segments. Sherman’s use of alliteration, rhyme, and unusual sentence structures creates a flow of language that imitates waves—perfect for the water spirits. But the even stresses the actresses lend these lines have a hypnotic effect; the words’ sounds become more salient than their meanings. Used sparingly, this would be effective; used often in Ondine, it detracts from the story at the heart of the play.
That story is told winningly by Jessica Waldman and Kenny Toll. As Ondine, Waldman exudes infectious curiosity and excitement. Life on land is new to her, and it is thrilling to watch her discover the joys of everything from baking to tea cozies to metaphysics. Hildebrand’s character is less completely developed—even his internal conflict between love and science is underplayed—but nonetheless feels very real. Toll’s most impressive feat of acting is keeping his moods and reactions varied as he spends much of the play fighting to stay awake. He constantly finds new reasons to push his eyelids open or sit up.
A supporting cast of Rain, Mist, and Ice (Molly Benson, Marilet Martinez, and Danielle O’Hare) recite poetry alone and together, as the voice of water. Their entrances and exits make excellent use of Michael Locher’s playful set. The pop through trap doors or materialize atop the wave-shaped stage. Ondine and Hildebrand have fun there, too, sliding down from the crests to the trough and dangling their feet through a trap door into an invisible pool below. The small theater is arranged with the audience on two opposite sides of the wave-stage, very close to the action. We get to share in the intimacy of Ondine’s and Hildebrand’s relationship.
Apologies going both ways aren’t enough to stave off sleep and therefore the play’s inevitable tragic end. It comes quickly, but that feels right: this is a short story, a mermaid tale, a mini-play. Sherman has written a gem of a show—one that could use a little more polishing, but one that has found the perfect setting under Rob Melrose’s direction in Cutting Ball’s cozy theater.
4 out of 5 stars