by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday February 19, 2016

Ondine (Jessica Waldman) shares the mermaid myth with Hildebrand (Kenny Toll)
Ondine (Jessica Waldman) shares the mermaid myth with Hildebrand (Kenny Toll)   

When you walk into "Ondine," you've got to take pains not to actually walk face-first into "Ondine." The set, a single, titanic piece in the rough shape of a wave, runs smack dab through the center of the theater, almost too big to fit.

As the cast points out, there are basically no flat surfaces on this thing, and the actors climb, scramble, slide and teeter across it the entire time. The whole thing looks a little like one of those giant Richard Serra sculptures, and its proportions are almost as intimidating.

The looming presence actually risks upstaging the play itself, but you can honestly say that before you even sit down, "Ondine" becomes one of the most memorable productions of the year, almost by default. Not bad.

Ondine (Jessica Waldman) is an ocean spirit who comes onto land to learn about the human ways, immediately meeting and falling for a geeky-cute alchemist knight named Hildebrand (Kenny Toll).

Naturally, this is a love not meant to be, and naturally they disregard this fact. Ondine has a three-woman chorus of water spirit sisters who pop up routinely to warn her about staying too long on land, but, well, you wouldn't have listened at that age either, would you?

The two lovebirds (lovefish?) go disgustingly gaga over each other in that 20-something way. When alone or with other watery creatures, Ondine speaks in poetry, but when the couple are together they talk in casual, anachronistic sweet nothings, the kind of love speak you indulge in when you actually don't have that much in common with your partner but dig the hell out of them anyway.

Meanwhile, Ondine delights in learning about all of the little material joys of being human. That schtick actually gets pretty twee and annoying after a while, but the point is that this is a character with no emotional filters who feels WAY too strongly about basically everything. When the relationship gets rocky, she tilts pretty far into crazy, going so far as to curse her thoughtless boyfriend so that he'll die the next time he tries to fall asleep.

This is a good working example of the "never go to bed angry" principle.

This all probably sounds silly when we try to explain it, like CW-style fantasy hodgepodge, but the truth is "Ondine" is a pretty good and very emotionally mature piece of work.

The experimental theater style blends well with the fairy tale themes. When things get nuts in the second half, for example, with the dialogue splintering and the atmosphere trending toward surreal, it feels appropriate rather than indulgent (as that kind of thing often does), because it's not hard to imagine this is precisely how a slightly naïve mermaid with no history coping with heartbreak might experience a meltdown.

There's a leitmotif running through the dialogue about melting down, dissolving, and transitioning from one state to another. The three supporting characters are even named Rain, Mist and Ice. Love changes you, after all; it can even destroy you. Where, the play wonders, is that fine line when something has changed so much it's no longer itself? Or do we never really change, but just rearrange our elements into different forms?

Waldman initially feels a little superficial during her twee exploratory phase, but the play soon becomes something of a marathon for her. She rarely leaves the stage, and unspools increasingly ambitious mouthfuls of poetry in nursery rhyme meter that eventually sounds quite beautiful.

"Ondine" is a brief play, just over an hour. Admittedly, there's a fleeting quality about it, like something sweet that dissolves on your tongue as soon as you taste it, or something bright that burns out in just a few seconds. But while it does last, it's honest and worthwhile and sometimes beautiful.

"Ondine" plays through March 6 at the EXIT on Taylor Theatre, 277 Taylor Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 415-292-4700 or go to CuttingBall.com.