Where better to stage a play about a water sprite who falls in love with a knight errant than at the Sutro Baths? The ruins of a 19th-century swimming pool complex on the western shoreline of San Francisco make for an eerie and romantic site -- especially when that site is partially reclaimed by the ocean.
That’s where We Players are performing Ondine, the classic 1938 French play by Jean Giraudoux, based on an 1811 German Romantic novel by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué called Undine. In an eloquent and witty 1954 English translation by Maurice Valency, it’s the tragic but often hilarious tale of a fish out of water, a mysterious young woman who always says exactly what she thinks and has no sense of the interpersonal politics of human society.
In partnership with the National Park Service, We Players are old hands at making use of scenic locales to bring classic stories to life. They’ve performed Hamlet on Alcatraz, a day-length Odyssey all over Angel Island and Macbeth at Fort Point, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Sometimes the inventiveness of these stagings has been stronger than the dramatic interpretations of the stories themselves. But in Ondine at Sutro, all the elements come together beautifully to create a breathtaking theatrical experience.
Actually, none of the play is performed at the former baths themselves. The audience congregates overlooking the ruins, where a fisherman (Jack Halton) floats along in a little boat. It’s when he comes ashore that we follow him to the next location and the story begins. Scenes are performed in various spots all around Sutro Baths and Sutro Heights Park, and the audience does a lot of trudging en masse from place to place. It’s best to wear comfortable shoes and several layers of clothing, because it gets awfully chilly along the coast. All the performance locations are public places, so prepare for amused and puzzled tourists gawking along the paths.
Directors Carly Cioffi and Ava Roy make excellent use of each specific location. Water spirits clamber over walls at a lookout point as if rising from the ocean. When we pass by one of them pressed against a cliffside, her long white robes suggest a waterfall.