Last Saturday I went to Cutting Ball Theater to see Ondine, a new play by Katharine Sherman, directed by Rob Melrose. Ondine is a mermaid who falls in love with Hildebrand, a young mortal, an alchemist who is searching for the "universal solvent" (though he also wonders what container could hold a substance that can dissolve anything – he occasionally ponders whether there is a hidden meaning and unity there). Like its titular mermaid, the play is appealing but also oddly disjointed.
For one thing, the setting is not some Maeterlinck-like Vague & Timeless Land of Misty Enchantments; it is insistently and clearly contemporary, in behavior, appearance, and language. So . . . an alchemist? I'm more likely to accept the mermaid, frankly. The facts of modern physics are far more marvelous than the fantastic dreams of the alchemists (who were generally considered frauds by Chaucer's time). But here we don't even reach Newton, much less Einstein – Aristotle is cited as the ultimate scientific authority. Hildebrand proclaims himself a knight as well as an alchemist. I couldn't help wondering how he's paying the rent. I suppose I should just accept the two worlds – mermaid and alchemist in one aspect, and (honestly, not very interesting) young contemporary couple in another – but the juxtaposition seemed more about convenience than anything else. Hildebrand not only appears to have no job other than his alchemist gig, he appears to have no friends, no family, and no history; Ondine has three older water-women who show up to remind her, rather gently, that there is a price for leaving the sea, but she too is in many ways a blank – Hildebrand literally teaches her language. Their life together is a Pinterest dream, revolving around cups of tea and home-made scones. (I was a bit baffled when Ondine talked about "learning to make scone dough rise" – yeast doughs rise, and they can be tricky, as yeast is a living organism, but scones are a quick bread and rise while baking – how do you "learn to make scone dough rise"?)
We're not really shown how they meet – Hildebrand pours some water out and she appears and it seems to be mutual love at first sight. This may be just my problem, but I don't find happy young love an interesting subject for the stage – it's sort of the point of their shared joy that there is nothing dramatic there: no conflict, no clash, just cups of tea and lovely homemade pies and scones. (This is not the only time the playwright avoids potentially interesting and dramatic scenes.) There are brief scenes, often variations on these themes (I've learned about tea! look at how much in love we are! I don't want to return to the sea yet, because of tea and scones and love!); the language is waterlike: fluid, flowing, often sparkling, occasionally murky. I do have to object to the frequent use of fuck / fucking, which is part of the insistently contemporary tone I referred to earlier: fuck and its variants started showing up more frequently as the play went on, and I winced each time, not because I was shocked and offended, but exactly because I wasn't: in the course of a few decades, that once powerful word has descended through overuse into a merely annoying verbal tic; an atomic bomb has turned into a damp squib. This is why we can't have not-nice things. It really used to mean something when you said fuck you to someone. Now: not so much.
And Sherman doesn't really do anything with the word, which is odd, considering that fucking is presumably what really draws these two characters together, even though their life together, as shown to us, is quite decorously tea-and-sconesy; the only reference to sex is on their first night, when Hildebrand gives her his bed and sleeps on the floor "because of chivalry" (though apparently he gets over that at some elided point). Other words are played with, but there's no playing with fucking. (As far as I recall, it is never used to refer to, you know, copulation; it's only used as an expletive or adjective.) The word just sits there, a standard marker of anger that's too conventional to attract much attention; it's a little dried-up pellet of dead language. If this were a play that aimed at realism, its use could be defended as an accurate representation of how many of our contemporaries speak, but when your protagonists are an alchemist and a mermaid, the way we live now is maybe not the effect you're really aiming for.
I found the actual experience of watching the play entertaining. The set (scenic design by Michael Locher) is a sort of wave-like crest running down the middle of the performance space (the audience sits on either side), and the characters climb and roll and sink over and around and even into it. There's a lot of movement. The cast is quite accomplished and charming (Jessica Waldman as Ondine, Kenny Toll as Hildebrand, and – I just now found out that the three water women have names! – Molly Benson as Rain, Marilet Martinez as Mist, and Danielle O'Hare as Ice). The set and staging are captivating. The language, except for its tired use of fuck, is playful and interesting. But the material seemed stretched a bit thin even for 80 intermissionless minutes, often because of Sherman's tendency to skip potentially meaty dramatic moments in favor of a chant-like repetition from the trio of water-women or sometimes puzzling remarks about baked goods. It may sound as if I'm asking for a more conventional play here, but I think that's not really it. I'm asking for a more dramatic play.
We do get one big dramatic scene, when Hildebrand decides that although he loves Ondine he needs to leave her because his important and urgent alchemical research dictates that he seek out a hermit and then live in solitude for a while. Ondine, apparently not understanding that his departure is temporary, curses him (much use of fuck in that speech). I'm not really giving anything away here, since the program tells us ahead of time about the actual though rare syndrome called Ondine's Curse, and in addition all along we're given brief scenes of Ondine gently slapping or shaking her knight to keep him awake, but if you're going to the play you might want to read the next few paragraphs selectively.
If you suffer from Ondine's Curse, you lose the ability to breathe automatically. This means that if you sleep, you will stop breathing and therefore die. Since being deprived of sleep will also kill you, it's a condition that condemns you to a painful death one way or the other. So Ondine is sentencing Hildebrand to death for leaving her. But it turns out that he does return, and he really did love her all along, which makes her feel really kind of bad for punishing him with a gruesome, painful, and premature death. (There's no explanation for her inability to undo a curse she laid on someone; presumably, as in Tennyson's Tithonus, "The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts.") When he realizes his beloved has laid this cruel, irrevocable curse on him, how does Hildebrand react? He doesn't. No anger, no sense of betrayal, no ironic laughter, no questioning. . . . no drama.
There's no clash of opinions or realities or desires here, not even a sense of the savage consequences of fooling with water sprites. I had the feeling that the material would work better as a lyric poem or ballad, forms in which a relentless focus on only one perspective or one voice can seem suggestive, ironic, and powerful, rather than narcissistic and emotionally self-serving. But the strength of drama as an art form is the forum it offers for a multiplicity of voices and different points of view, and we're just not getting that here. In a poem our imagination can supply the doomed youth's unmentioned reaction, but when we see the actor physically in front of us, the art form (and reasonable expectations) dictate that we're going to see some reaction from him.
I felt that underneath its shining carapace, the essence of the play was banal: it's about a young woman who is all about love and baking. There's a young man who lets her down, because he has an interest other than her – he's putting his career first. She curses him, in the way of young women let down by young men, and in a bit of wish fulfillment, he dies a horrible death (horrible, however gracefully and gently staged), even though (in another bit of wish fulfillment) it turns out he loved her all along. For me, this was one of those plays whose pleasures – an ingenious set and staging, a fine cast, a mostly interesting flow of words (but please, everyone, stop with the fucking) – gradually recede as the experience passes, leaving doubts about the themes and structure of the work. But there was enough there so that I would be interested in seeing another play by Sherman.
If you'd like to check it out yourself, the show is running at the Exit on Taylor through 6 March; you can get tickets here.