Love is a drug but beware the awful side effects. Wait…no!…that can’t be right. Let’s try again: Love and deceit are human so therefore both are equ…Yikes! Wrong again. OK, I’ve got it. Love is a many splendored thing, but not for people.
Geez, I just don’t understand what Jean Giraudoux is trying to tell us about love and the human condition in his paradox-filled play “Ondine,” a rarely performed fantasy that’s been dusted off and nicely oiled by the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium. In a way, the author’s messages (there seem to be many) make little difference because, as Giraudoux would have it, if you’re smart about something, you’re probably dumb. (And if you claim to understand “Ondine,” don’t blame me for the epithet, blame Giraudoux.)
The late French playwright wrote “Ondine” in 1938 and it’s considered by many his finest work. Indeed, the fantasy has an impressive theatrical structure – at one point the story we’ve been involved in becomes a play within a play, a highly amusing manipulation. It’s also, at times, quite beautiful – an impassioned love story about a love that cannot be. Giraudoux based “Ondine” on a German tale, and on Broadway in 1954, it turned the Tony-winning Audrey Hepburn into a star, in the title role. That version was translated into English by Maurice Valency, whose script is being used by Idiopathic Ridiculopathy under the direction of local all-around theater artist Aaron Cromie. (Cromie’s work as a puppet-maker and puppeteer shows up in “Ondine,” in some minor roles.)
A plus for “Ondine” is its brightly drawn characters – among them, a knight whose armor is not always so shining (Andrew Carroll), a woman whose love for the knight is often close to true (Sarah Knittel), a king in love with the idea of being Hercules (the company’s leader, Tina Brock). There’s a chief of the king’s court whose self-assurance matches his cluelessness (Robb Hutter), a wizard who sees into the future (Susan Giddings) and of course, Ondine. She is an enchanting sea nymph come ashore, and an ill fit in a world of humans. She’s candid to a fault, open to new ideas and opinionated about the ways of sea creatures. She’s a great swimmer.
She’s also a great frustration to the knight, who falls for her at a chance meeting, only to break his vows to the woman he’s promised to marry. Ondine is played with a marvelous naivete by the lovely Ama Bollinger, the only character who speaks in a French-accented English, which makes her even more lovable. (At times, she reminded me of film’s Gigi, a girlish character who’s, in fact, all woman.)
Idiopatic Ridiculopathy is giving “Ondine” a generally good ride, although the night I saw the show the cast ran roughshod over two key points in the play — one involving a swapped parentage and the other, an explanation of a marriage gone sour. The dialogue came too quickly and was too loud to be digested at those junctures. In the end, though, the production was an entertaining version of a play that we probably won’t be seeing again for some time.
Too bad, because when Giraudoux sticks to the plot, “Ondine” makes for a happy confusion of reality and enchantment. Whenever he hits he intersection of human behavior and philosophy, though, it’s a blathering wreck. I wouldn’t say that one wins out over the other, but you may need to choose your focal point.
“Ondine,” a production of the Idiopathic Ridiculopathy Consortium, runs through March 2 on the fifth-floor stage at Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnut between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-285-0472 or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/504495.