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THEATER REVIEW : A Fearless, Massive 'Ondine' Enchants Despite Complexity : Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble revives Jean Giraudoux's play on a shoestring, but the talented company refuses to bow to limitations.

August 18, 1993|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER CRITIC EMERITUS

The enchanted plays of French playwright Jean Giraudoux have suffered from neglect in recent decades, both here and in France. Perhaps it's because they're too fanciful for a world mired in disasters. Perhaps their metaphors seem too airy in the face of the violence that grips us daily. Perhaps their cast lists simply tend to be too long.

As any visitor to the Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble's current revival of the 1939 "Ondine" could attest, the loss is all ours. A three-act play about a water sprite who falls in love with an earthbound knight errant sounds like kid stuff. But this is a fairy tale with an agenda. Through its Grimm trappings, it speaks to adults, much as do "Into the Woods," "A Midsummer Night's Dream" or "The Tempest."

With Giraudoux you get an extra fillip we'll simply call a Gallic touch: a skewed way of looking at life's polarizing forces that's incurably, delectably French. The PRT Ensemble has plunged into Giraudoux's parable of the temporal vs. the spirit world with its usual zest for ambitious projects and brazen fearlessness at the sheer magnitude of the task. Under Marilyn Fox's light-handed direction, it delivers nearly three hours of pure magic and philosophy.

Auguste and Eugenie are impoverished folk earning a hardscrabble living on the edge of a lake in the Black Forest. A baby they found at the water's edge when their own child was lost has grown up to become a strangely enchanted creature they have named Ondine (or Little Wave).

Impulsive, frank and filled with wonder, Ondine is a creature of water and air, riding the storm at night, spontaneously performing little feats of magic and driving her aging adoptive parents crazy with her whims and unpredictability.

The arrival of a knight in shining armor changes all that. Ondine falls in love with him and, despite warnings from her watery friends from the lake's nether regions, determines to marry him.

You guessed it. That's where the trouble starts. The balance of the plot is surprising enough that its developments are best left undisclosed. "Ondine" is a passionate love story in which this ethereal spirit creature crashes headlong into the petty squabbles and paltry deceptions of human affairs. One can get hurt that way, and she does. The worlds don't mix. Her mentor from the watery deep, known simply as the Old One, furtively monitors Ondine's travails, finally offering perfect amnesia as the kindest absolution.

Giraudoux spins a darn good yarn, and his Ondine is a magical creature beautifully embodied at PRTE by lithe Liza Rivera, whose childlike good looks and seemingly artless spontaneity are always artful and ardent.

She is well matched by Robert Jacobs' knight, the character who goes through the longest arc of change, starting out self-involved and becoming the hapless lover of this water nymph--a man in over his head, who can't find a way out. Repudiating the one creature he holds dear brings on bitterness and death. In this wide range of emotions, Jacobs doesn't miss a beat, lending insight, humor and size to the whole gambit.

Gar Campbell, a founding stalwart of Los Angeles' legendary Company Theatre, is the shadowy picture of sorrowful wisdom as the Old One. Stephanie Shroyer has a well-modulated turn as Bertha, the "other woman" in the knight's life. Peter Kevin Quinn shows restraint and depth as Bertram, a poet favored by and in love with Ondine. And Alexander Zale adds a touch of comedy as the court-weary King who finds Ondine's unvarnished taunting utterly refreshing.

But despite intelligent performances by William Lithgow and Jeanne Bates as Ondine's exasperated parents and a clever turn by Emma Chasin as a mincing master of revels, this "Ondine," true to the company's name, is an ensemble show. The whole is even more impressive than the parts.

Contributing impressively to this whole are Kerry Jones' inventive set design, Guido Girardi's imaginative lighting, Tom Gerou's eerie musical composition (which he also performs) and Barbara Jacobs' endlessly creative costumes.

Ultimately, though, director Fox deserves the credit for having had the gumption to revive this large, complicated, audacious and bittersweet play on a relative shoestring. The production is one more manifestation of this talented company's refusal to bow to limitation. Like Ondine herself, it has made it to the other side and lives to tell the tale.

* "Ondine," Pacific Resident Theatre Ensemble, 8780 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $15; (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

William Lithgow: Auguste

Jeanne Bates: Eugenie/The Kitchen Maid

Robert Jacobs: Hans Ritter

Liza Rivera: Ondine

Gar Campbell: The Old One/The Illusionist

Hugh Hodgin: The Lord Chamberlain

Stephanie Shroyer: Bertha

Peter Kevin Quinn: Bertram

Alexander Zale: The King

Bill Evans: The First Fisherman

Michael Rothhaar: First Judge

Robert Alan Bleuth: Second Judge

Emma Chasin: Salammbo/Woman With Pearls

Adaya, Timothy Birnschein, Richard Byron, David Dionisio, Shannon Fill, Judith Montgomery, Brix Smith, Nick Speropulos Ensemble

Producers Pat DiStefano, Sue Giffin, Mark Macauley. Director Marilyn Fox. Playwright Jean Giraudoux. Translator Maurice Valency. Sets Kerry Jones. Scenic painting Kerry Jones, Scott Campbell. Lights Guido Girardi. Wardrobe Barbara Jacobs. Armor effects Lawrence Wayne. Sound Josiah Polhemeus, Trev Broudy. Composer-performer Tom Gerou. Choreographer Stephanie Shroyer. Technical director Mark Macauley. Stage manager Anika Hannibal.

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