by Carol Rocamora
It was a razor-sharp satire in 2004, and it hasn’t lost its cutting edge today.
Fabulation: or the Re-Education of Undine, is Lynn Nottage’s absurdist comedy about “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche,” in the words of its self-describing protagonist. It’s a tall topic to tackle, and Nottage does it fearlessly.
Undine’s surreal saga, as narrated by herself, charts her precipitous fall from the heights of her sleek Manhattan office, where she presides over her own public relations firm. An upwardly mobile 37-year-old black woman, Undine (the charismatic Cherise Boothe) has rejected her roots, attended an Ivy League school, climbed the professional ladder, changed her name, and erased her past (her family died in a fire, she tells everyone.)
But she discovers that her exotic Argentinian husband Hervé (Ian Lassiter) has cleaned out their bank accounts and left her. Penniless and pregnant, she returns to her roots and her given name, Sherona (her working-class parents are alive, after all, and living in the Brooklyn projects with her brother and grandmother).
That’s just scene one – and from there, the spiral spins ever-downward and out of control. Her family life is bonkers – Flow, her brother (Marcus Callender) is a radical rapper who’s composing a poem about Brer Rabbit and African-American history. Her wheelchair-bound grandmother (Heather Alicia Simms) isn’t diabetic – she’s hooked on heroin, and Undine gets arrested while trying to buy drugs for her on the street. Undine spends a night in jail, and attends compulsory rehab sessions for addicts (even though she isn’t), where she meets an affectionate fireman (played also by Ian Lassiter in a hilarious stroke of double-casting). When she isn’t in rehab, she spends days waiting on line to fill out medical forms for prenatal care.
Under Lileana Blain-Cruz’s slick direction, an agile ensemble of eight actors play over two dozen roles. J. Bernard Calloway and Nikiya Mathis are delightfully quirky as Undine’s security-guard parents. They also play recovering addicts, along with Dashiell Eaves (who delivers a loopy “sharing” monologue at the top of Act II, after playing Undine’s accountant). Mayaa Boateng is a riot as Stephie, Undine’s ditzy secretary (brilliantly costumed by Montana Levi Blanco in pale-blue feathers and silver tights). This skillful company moves multiple pieces on Adam Rigg’s clever set.
But there’s a serious side to all the mayhem. “Fabulation: it doesn’t just happen, it takes time,” says the protagonist. As Undine/Sherona reinvents herself once more, she tries to integrate all aspects of her life– past and present, plus impending parenthood. Watching Undine morph into a new, integrated identity, I was reminded of Heidi’s journey in Wendy Wasserstein’s The Heidi Chronicles.
(Note: Fabulation was written in 2004, and there may be a few anachronisms, as happens with the satirical genre. Fort Greene, Brooklyn – for example – where Undine’s family lives, is now an upscale community. But the struggle that women face in self-definition is an evolving issue, as relevant today as ever.)
Thanks to Signature Theatre and its dedication to the complete work of a given playwright, we’re able to appreciate Nottage’s comedic side. Those of us who admire Ruined (2007), Sweat (2016) and Mlima’s Tale (2018) are fortunate to be exposed to her satirical skills. Comedy is, after all, serious business.
Photos: Monique Carboni
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz. At the Pershing Square Signature Theatre through January 13.