Prescience that Delights: 'Ondine' at Hubbard Hall

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CAMBRIDGE, N.Y. - We need a bit of magic these days. It's the "spoonful of sugar" that helps the harsh dose of this life to go down a bit easier.

Ondine is a play you can surrender into: Its exquisite language and chimera of theatrical devices gentles you along the way to the searing and sublime, the swallowing of the agony and ecstasy it is to be human. It's a play I fell in love with when I was in junior high, having none of the maturity then needed to understand its life lessons, a play that I have grown into over the years as life experience opened me to its profound layers.

Ondine is said to be Jean Giraudoux's finest work. It was written in 1938, based on the novella "Undine" by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. This novella became one of the most beloved young adult books of the 19th century, mentioned in Little Women and illustrated by Arthur Rackham. It is the fable and fairy tale of how the knight errant Hans, off on a quest his betrothed has sent him on, meets the water spirit Ondine, and they fall untidily in love. They are not only different people, they are from completely different worlds - and how can any good come of this?

Giraudoux's genius abides in his extraordinary ability to present life's dualities and paradoxes. He serves up the contrasts with a balance of comedic absurdity and ineluctable tragedy, delivered through the seamless layering of all kinds of theatrical effects. The three acts of the play-within-a-play absorb you, entertain you, and leave you lambent with tenderness for your own humanity.

When you enter the Hall and see the stage and the set, you will be seeing some original scenery painted around 1905 by George Peters. The backdrop seems to exhale the moisture of the rushing stream and verdant banks, the sky glows with the day's happiest light. It's like your best dream of the puppet theatre you wanted as a child. The furniture limns the farmhouse interior. There is a window framed in rustic limbs, an anemone of painted flames in the corner hearth. Nature and a human dwelling are still permeable in the forest, but there is the subtle hint that they will inevitably collide in Ken Lorenz' whimsical set. Benjie White's lighting design lets those prophetic shadows play and brightness illuminate the revelations of the future action. Sherry Recinella's costumes run the gamut from rustic to fantastical, to an almost circus riff when we get to the Wittenstein court. My favorites were the shimmering sea foam shades of the Ondines' draperies, and the masses of earth-toned swatches that encased The Old One, like a mountain having all the seasons cascade over its slopes simultaneously. David Cuite's bass is a connecting heartbeat for every scene. His instrument sighs, chortles and laments through play's actions.

A Stanislavski quote that chafed me is "There are no small parts, only small actors." John Hadden's casting and direction led me to experience the inherent truth of that quote. Ondine's cast has me receiving the more generous interpretation of Dabbs Greer, "Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead." Hadden's direction develops the nuances of all the light and dark the characters embody. This ensemble always makes the leap toward each other, their level of engagement with the exquisite language of the play and how they fully receive it from each other in this cast of 19 makes each of them distinct and indelible. Not only did they revel in comedic lines and physicality, they melted as one into the tragic shadow. The cast personifies the duality that the play is layered in, and several actors have multiple roles where they don alternating masks of comedy and tragedy, rustic and royalty.

Here is the redoubtable assemblage: Catherine Seeley has a flexibility with her voice, face, and body that takes her from the motherly Eugenie to the voluptuousness of Venus, to an Ondine, and finally to the court lady Violante, showing delicious subtleties and nuances even in grander character movements. Gino Costabile retained a grounded majesty as The Old One and The Illusionist that advanced some of the play's wittiest lines into hilarity and underscored the relentless advance of cause and effect into tragedy. Sylvia Bloom's crystalline vocals made the dissonance of the Ondine spell a seductive hymn and then she warbled out a rollicking Salammbo with Chris Barlow's baritone paying obeisance.

Chris embodies that Dabbs Greer quote. A mere change of the layer of a costume, and a whole new character life appears. Delaney Smith's profile is an Ondine from a Greek vase and makes a peasant from a Millais painting as the Kitchen Maid. Andy Volin's face as the second Judge is like the scales of Justice, you can see the balance being weighed with every expression. These are two young people we will watch grow through Hubbard Hall Theatre. Speaking of young people, the Dog-Child/Children, Eli Bloom and Miranda Lorenz, are dangerously adorable. Jack Boggan's delivery of the Superintendent of Theatre's lines was one volley of verbal pyrotechnics after another. Scott Renzoni as Ondine's father, Auguste, was the epitome of the long-suffering parent in his sardonic, inclusive delivery that evoked commiseration in the form of audience heads nodding. Gabe Patterson as the poet Bertram looked as if he might start to lose his physical outline, at the mercy of being pulled into another world. Myka Plunkett's Bertha is every sharp edge and nerve of protocols, lists, and court manipulations.

She crackles and sparks out her lines like heat lightning from the center of a lush, red rose. Tony Pallone's Lord Chamberlain is so precisely, overbearingly leonine you'll expect a tufted tail to be switching about from under the back of his brocade coat. Doug Ryan is the King with a heart of gold and a sense of the inherent rightness of things. His scene with Ondine is one of the most poignant and captivating. Erin Oullette's authoritarian voice as the Judge has a musical ring to it, underscoring each line and dictating the pacing of the inexorable wave of tragedy. Robert Francis Forgett draws your eye in his scenes, playing both sides of his coin with a tempered majesty that imbues the ridiculous Trainer of Seals and the weather-beaten Fisherman with their own tongue-in-cheek dignities.

Maizy Scarpa's Hans is a casting coup. She makes manifest the unconscious purity of Hans's egotistical cloddishness, his slavishness to protocol and routine that suffocates his imagination. He can never meet the unselfishness, purity and courage of Ondine's love where it needs to be met. Scarpa's movements in her armor and court regalia are full of virile life force that morphs to a clenched agony when Hans cannot grasp the magnitude of his deception's repercussions. Autumn Hausthor's Ondine is a Giraudoux prism of Pre-Raphaelite gossamer with a tensile strength, courage, and passion for truth that transcends all the mythic facets. She gives herself fully to the life and meaning of her scenes and stays in the moment with her fellow actors. This instinct is remarkably developed for one so young. It surely blossomed and gained purpose with Hadden's direction. I only wanted her to slow the delivery of her lines a bit in places, less of the spring thaw torrent and maybe more of Ondine's "home lake" with a breeze moving gently over it. Giraudoux would be delighted with this production of Ondine. It was a work ahead of its time and prescient for the time to come. In the hands and vision of John Hadden's direction and the Hubbard Hall pool of talent that he draws upon, Ondine has had an evolution and a revolution. See it, commune with it, and be sweetly moved by a gentle prodding, sometimes a playful tickle, of the magician's paradox of this earthly life.

Performances of "Ondine" are set for Fridays at 8 p.m.: Nov. 22, Nov. 29, Dec. 6; Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Nov. 23, Nov. 30, Dec. 7; Sundays at 2 p.m.: Nov. 24, Dec. 1, Dec. 8. Tickets: $25 General Admission/$15 Students/$22 Members may log in to Hubbard Hall's website, hubbardhall.org to see subscriber options. To reach the box office, call 518-677-2495.


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