Gino Costabile, Maizy Scarpa and Autumn Hausthor; photo: John Sutton
"A word where a word cannot be spoken."
Blonde vs. brunette. What could be a more obvious rivalry. The blondes always win (except, perhaps, for the classic "draw" between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell) hands down. In Jean Giraudoux’s now classic 1938 play, seen on Broadway in 1954 where it ran for 175 performances and brought Audrey Hepburn a Tony Award in the title role, the playwright makes it very clear, from the outset, that this will be that sort of a story, a parable of yellow versus brown, fair versus dark, malevolence versus benevolence. Now, at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY, you can see for yourself what wonders may be wrought by a playwright who can take whimsy and make it a hot white light of revelations.
The knight, Hans, revels in his love for Bertha, dark and strong and controlling. In her service he is on a quest. He regales the fisherman Auguste and his wife Eugenie with thoughts of his love. Then he meets their daughter Ondine, the fair one, the blonde, and he is ready to foreswear his great love, his Bertha, for this totally strange, peculiar but yellow-haired child. But unbeknownst to him Auguste is not really her father but merely the man who found her on the banks of his lake and his river. Ondine is a water-nymph raised by two families, one human and one not. She falls in love with Hans and must have him for her own. Both she and her knight are united in marriage but her temperament, that of the constantly changing waters, is not an easy match for a son of humankind.
Don’t think for a moment that this is just another telling of "The Little Mermaid." It’s not. This is a legend of central Europe, and not a fairy tale of the Baltic countries. This is dark and demanding and even just a bit dangerous, especially for the young blonde women in the audience. They may not leave the theater without having to reassure the men they are with that this is just a story, nothing more.
John Hadden has assembled a cast of good and not as good actors for this rarely seen play. He has given them some erotic material and told them how to make it work without offending their audience. Would he had let them offend us just a few times; that would have made a much more French evening than it ultimately turns out to be. The principal difficulty lies with his Ondine herself. Autumn Hausthor is seventeen and lovely, but she has not yet developed the depth that Ondine requires. She has a habit of speaking long lines too quickly and losing the impact that they should have. She has an abrupt way of moving that loses the much needed aspect of attraction that Ondine must display. Blame it on her youth. She is not a bad actress, just one in over her head. She has very moving moments in this performance, but they are too few and too hard to hold on to when she moves into the next sequence.
Hans is played by Maizy Scarpa, a very talented young actress in a cross-dressing role. It was easy to accept her rendition of a very young man in love for the first time twice. Mel Ferrer played the role on Broadway and brought a feline grace to the interpretation; Scarpa moves the other way and plays him as a late teenage kid with a sports history. From start to finish she gives Hans an honesty and credibility that does both of them justice, for his eagerness to experience love is what drives the play forward and Scarpa gets that completely.
Bertha (Marian Seldes in an early role in her career) is undertaken by the multi-talented Myka Plunkett. Tall, slender, straight-backed, regal, she takes the stage each time she enters and makes it her very own. Playing the classic brunette we know she must lose her man and every time she wins him or loses him she takes it on her classic chin and moves forward with a clear resolve. Even when her ultimate secret, so secret not even she knows it, is thrust into the public eye she maintains a posture of superiority. It’s a lovely, dark performance, a winner actually.
Scott Renzoni is an excellent Auguste. This actor gets better and better with each role he takes with the Hubbard Hall company. He brings an early maturity to this role, a father whose lost child has been replaced by the water-nymph baby he has raised and now loves as his own. He makes tenderness seem so natural and easy and he brings a hard hint of emotion to the character’s need to protect his family from strangers. You can feel the back-story in his manners and his voice and that is good acting.
Gino Costabile as the Old One brings a strong voice and body to the character, a senior water-god, whose human bulk is well-guarded by his mind-over-matter sensibilities. Costabile plays different aspects of himself in each of the three acts (yes, folks THREE acts, two intermissions. Get used to it!) as he interacts with more human beings than most other demi-gods are used to addressing. His work here is superb, underplayed but strong, a guiding voice when no voices should be heard.
The two judges are stand-out characters as played by Erin Oullette and Andrew Volin, she in particular a stand-out in a large ensemble company. Catherine Seeley is fine as Eugenie and Violante, but a momentary standout as Venus (almost on the half-shell). Doug Ryan is funny as the King and Tony Pallone does wonderfully as the Lord Chamberlain. Rob Forgett delivers his own brand of comic playing as the Trainer of Seals.
Gabe Patterson plays the alternate love interest for Ondine, Bertram. He is all right, but could use a push into the romantic lead category. He is never the rival he should be for Ondine’s attentions, yet must always be referred to in that vein. The interpretation was just lacking somehow.
David Cuite, the musician, plays the double-bass violin accompanying those moments in the play where music seems right and his music also seems just right for this production. Jazz inflected it moves the tale out of the middle ages and into the contemporary scene where its blonde/black rivalry feels just so fine, like his music.
This is not a play you get to see. The excellent stage sets, by Ken Lorenz, include flats painted for this theater more than a century ago and that is also not something you get to see very often. Benjie White’s lighting design work and Sherry Recinella’s costumes help solidify this exotic picture at Hubbard Hall. Over all, the play is the thing and mixed-bag or not, this is one of the few times you will have the chance to see Giraudoux’s masterwork. On a take it or leave it scale, I’d say "take it." And take people with you; young or old this could be their only chance to experience this play.
Ondine plays at Hubbard Hall, located at 25 E. Main Street, Cambridge, NY through December 8. For information and tickets call 518-677-2495 or go on line at www.hubbardhall.com.