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Fabulation,or The Re-Education of Undine

We are your family! The Watkins family is there inside you. — Undine's father to whom the baby "inside" her is part of the family she though stood in the way of her becoming part of a more trouble free and prosperous life.

Fabulate: to tell invented stories; create fables or stories filled with fantasy; to relate an event as a fable.
Cherise Boothe (Photo: Monique Carboni)
Unlike Lynn Nottage's 2009 and 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning plays Ruined and Sweat, Fabulation,or The Re-Education of Undine , which preceded both, is quite a mouthful. And, though it lacks the depth of those much acclaimed plays, it's nice to have a chance to see it given a splendidly staged and performed Nottage legacy production at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

I saw and liked th 2004 premiere at Playwrights Horizons' second smaller stage. Since the current production tells the same story some of my comments from that review are incorporated into what follows.

Esther Mills, the protagonist of my favorite early Nottage play, Intimate Apparel, is a character you warm to immediately. The more flamboyant Undine Barnes Calles, nee Sharona Watkins (the terrific Cherise Boothe), whose story is a 100 year fast forward from Esther's, is able to fulfill her dreams on a much grander scale but she's not as instantly likable. However, like Esther she makes foolish choices when it comes to love, and she does win our sympathy as we journey with her from the success-oozing office of the public relations firm she founded back to the decidedly less upscale Brooklyn home she left at an early age.

The staging of one play at the turn of twentieth century and another at the turn of twenty-first does, both set in New York does make one wish for even more plays about African-American women's experiences in various decades (shades of August Wilson's 10-play cycle).

Cherise Boothe is terrific as the narrator and main player of Nottage's fable about a woman catapulted back to the life of the Brooklyn projects she thought she had left forever. She fully inhabits this woman who must, like Voltaire's Candide, learn to tend her garden— in this case the garden of the humanity she neglected in her climb up the ladder of African-American Yuppiedom.

Actually that parallel to Candide's misfortune-ridden journey, isn't the only literary link. When Undine upon graduating from college decided to cut all ties to her family the new name she chose as part of her self reinvention was inspired by Undine Sprague, Edith Wharton's novel, The Custom of the Country about Undine Sprague, a Midwestern girl whose upward-yearning aspirations get a rude awakening. Nottage's Undine's chooses a career as a publicist specializing in image building for nouveau riche African-Americans like herself. It's a job that rewards clever fabulating with media coverage. Like Wharton, Nottage casts a sharp satirical eye on Undine and the large cast of characters across the age, class and race spectrum. But she's opted for a humorous scenario. And so, Undine's nightmarish comeuppance and inevitable redemption as a likable, loving member of the human race is hilariously picaresque

Very broad satiric humor like this tends to overwhelm the underlying seriousness. But thanks to director Lileana Blain-Cruz (whose many outstanding directing credits includes The House That Will Not Stand and the also picaresque The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Wide World) it all works quite well.

From the opening scene that finds Undine in her CEO mode insisting that her assistant Stephie (one of Mayaa Boateng's several roles) must find a celebrity for a client or "If you can't find a celebrity, we'll create a new one." Her descent into impoverished nonentity .

Nottage ups the awfulness of Undine's fall off that ladder of success, by making the glamorous, the sexy Latin husband (Ian Lassiter) who tangoed his way into her heart and hearth (bravo choreographer Valeria Solomonoff!)a swindler. And so, the sophisticated Undine is as bamboozled by the love of her life as Esther Mills is by hers in Intimate Apparel.

what happens between Undine's going from high powered, happily married business owner to penniless single mother-to-be brings on a cornucopia of quirky, imperfect character.

Undine's family accepts her return as they accept the wheelchair bound grandma's heroin addiction as diabetes injections. It's Undine's shopping to feed grandma's heroin habit that lands her in jail and a sentence of six months in a group therapy program for recovering addicts.

The savvy Lileana Blain-Cruz has steered the excellent 7-member ensemble though two to three roles apiece. Dashiell Eaves is excellent as the accountant delivering the news about Undine's empty bank account, and even better as an English teacher telling the addicts in the therapy group how cocaine enabled him to lecture brilliantly on books he never read. In an especially witty casting stroke Ian Lassiter morphs from the unprincipled husband into the reformed addict and future fireman with who becomes Undine's most supportive (and, yes, romantic) friend. I could go on, but all these hard working actors make Undine's journey special and entertaining. The many personas they take on make the cast seem much larger than it is. Montana Leviblanco's costumes and Cookie Jordan's wigs enhance and differentiate each role.

Undine's descent into impoverished nonentity Hell is of course a bit too rapid and not to be taken as anything but a fable. The play would still be better without the unfunniest and least believable scene with a Yoruba Priest who persuades Undine to part with her last thousand dollars.

Last but by no means least of this production's assets is the way Adam Rigg, who also did the spectacular design for The House That Will Not Stand , has managed to create a variety of scenes without roll-out sets or other smoke and mirrors stagecraft. Instead a variety of fancy scenery changes, basically simple props are moved on and off the stage to take us from Undine's smart office to various interiors and street scenes in Brooklyn. Who said that scenic design has to be an all (lots of fancy turning and sliding sets) or nothing (a visually boring bare stage with minimal or no props).

If you leave your need for kitchen sink realism at the door, you'll enjoy seeing this cautionary play as much as Lynn Nottage must have enjoyed writing it. . Next up in her legacy season is another satire By the Way, Meet Vera Stark.

For more about Lynn Nottage, see the recently added page about her added to our Playwrights Album. . .

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Fabulation,or The Re-Education of Undine
Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Cast: Mayaa Boateng (Stephie, Devora, others), Cherise Boothe (Undine), Marcus Callender (Flow, Dealer, others), J. Bernard Calloway (Father, others), Dashiell Eaves (Accountant, Addict #1, others), Ian Lassiter (Herve, Guy, others) and Heather Alicia Simms (Grandma, Others).
Scenic Designer:Adam Rigg
Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco
Hair and Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao
Sound Designer: Palmer Hefferan
Production Stage Manager Terri K. Kohler
Running Time:y 2 hours, including 1 intermission
Pershing Square Signature Center's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatr
From 11/19/18; opening 12/10/18; closing 12/30/18.
reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 12/08 press preview

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