Talented and celebrated director Aaron Cromie teams up with the idiosyncratic Idopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium to tackle French impressionist Jean Giraudoux at the Walnut Street Theatre Studio 5. The play, ONDINE, is about colliding worlds. Cromie and his team succeed at portraying one of these worlds, but falls short on the other.
Ondine—an ondine, or water sprite (or the Little Mermaid)—has made child-rearing difficult for her adopted peasant parents. She’s headstrong, fickle, and—well—magical. But when Hans, a young, handsome, kinda dumb but sorta poetic and really self-satisfied knight-errant rides up to their door and decides to take her away to marry her, they aren’t happy to lose her.
Ondine is special. Her unreal relationship to the world makes her impossible to control and impossible to give up. Supremely herself, she delights in every moment, listens to no one, makes and breaks storms, and flips unexpectedly from one caprice to another. She is engaging, vivifying, and dominating. At this point, she is not so different from Hans, who with his royal status, confidence, and fickleness in love is similarly dominating and unpredictable.
Their connection and the impossibility of the relationship are both obvious in a moment. Philadelphia newcomer Ama Bollinger brings an intensity and dedication to the role which make Ondine more than just a tiresome manic pixie dream girl. She becomes, somehow, both mythical and real, analogous with youth and foolishness but also somehow relatable to a mature sensibility: pure enthusiasm.
After a wowing first act, receiving admiring and spontaneous applause, the second two thirds of this production gradually decline in verve. Hans brings Ondine to court, where the their relationship’s impossibilities become clear to both of them. Finally, Ondine undergoes a farcical trial by judges of supernatural crimes and Hans is driven to madness and death by the strength of her love for him.
Cromie and his talented cast establish the mythical world, but the real world it is meant to collide with never quite finds its footing.
Giraudoux’s major themes, as the program tells us, include love and the relationships between man and woman (“or between man and some unachievable ideal”). But Giraudoux’s concept of love comes across as unstomachable in its naiveté.
Ondine, as she herself attests, thinks always of Hans, wants to be fused to him by flesh, and sees him as her god. You might say, the entire play is about that unstoppable force’s collision with reality—the concept that Ondine’s suffocating, childish brand of love is unachievable.
Yet, in this impressionistic play, characters can die of love. They are driven crazy by it. Hans and Bertha feel “destined” to be with one another. This becomes very tricky to present to a modern audience. It is a naive and dangerously cliche presentation of love. The language is hyperbolic. And Cromie’s actors, and therefore the audience, never quite come to terms with the levels it wants to soar to. They reach a certain emotional intensity in the middle of the second act and don’t offer much variety afterwards.
Therefore, in a funny way, the “reality” which Ondine is meant to collide with, and which lends this play its power, never becomes real to us, and the “love” presented remains an unattainable and frustrating ideal. The question I come away with is this: can we even do impressionism in Philly right now? What companies, directors, and actors do we have who possess the style and the understanding to pull it off? It is not unlike the failure of People’s Light (read my review of GHOSTS here) to fully grasp and present Ibsen’s realism in an affecting way.
There are, of course, numerous things to like about this production. Susan Giddings as the Illusionist, Andrew Carroll as Hans, and of course Bollinger as Ondine are chief among them. February 5-March 2, 2014; http://idiopathicridiculopathyconsortium.org.