Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine
by John Stoltenberg
It takes a certain talent to turn topics that are no laughing matter into laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t condescend, doesn’t ridicule, and yet imbues life with meaning as only art can. That kind of talent is on sensational display in Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, now playing at the Atlas. A delightful picker-upper about being down and out, Mosaic’s season-opener Fabulation combines hilarity with heartfelt honesty with show-stopping performances—and it’s an outright joy.
The play’s subtitle, The Re-Education of Undine, refers to the riveting character arc of 37-year-old Undine Barnes Calles. Called Sharona as a child, she grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, went to Dartmouth, left her family and roots behind, renamed and remade herself, and now—unapologetically bourgie—owns a boutique PR firm in Manhattan. In a bad-romance plot twist—her husband absconds with all her money—she’s forced to move in with her family and face a profusion of underclass predicaments that require her to invent herself all over again.
The phenomenal Felicia Curry plays Undine and is reason enough not to miss this show. In direct addresses to the audience, she takes us into her confidence, makes us care about her even when she goes virago. Her eyelashes aflutter, her voice quaking with indignation and self-pity, she stalks the stage in glam heels in full command of Undine’s snark, vulnerability, and rage.
Among her supporting cast while she’s still rich and elite are her fashion-challenged assistant Stephie (an amusingly sassy Lauryn Simone) and her bearer-of-bad-news Accountant (a forthright yet sympathetic James Whalen). We also hear briefly from Undine’s Latin ex-lover, her feckless husband Hervé (Carlos Saldaña), who lands laughs by the howlful, sometimes simply with a word.
Once back in the hood, Undine meets up with her fam after 14 years away. Her Mother (a sternly maternal Roz White) is preoccupied with word-search puzzles. Her Father (a warmly august William Newman, Jr.) is obsessed with the lottery. Her Grandma (a feisty Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) mostly zones out. And her brother Flow (a manic and magnetic Kevin E. Thorne II) has a couple poet-manqué monologues that bring down the house.
All but Curry double or triple in other parts in a swift succession of scenes that to describe would take away surprise. Suffice it to say, the play touches on such hardships as addiction, incarceration, unwanted pregnancy, and a messed-up social services system. (“I don’t belong here!” Undine laments.) Nottage’s storytelling craft—always with a light touch and laughter about the for-real—makes the improbable perfectly plausible and is uncannily compelling.
One scene in particular, though, merits mention because it inspired Director Eric Ruffin to conceive a brilliantly illuminating production concept for the play.
Not long after Undine becomes poor, she visits a Yoruba priest (Newman, in white robe), whom she consults about her bad fortune. From that brief encounter, Ruffin has imagined an entire African-themed framing for the story that includes transitional episodes when the Ensemble encircle the stage in enchanting rituals, rhythmically clapping and sounding handheld percussion instruments. (Rashida Bumbray was movement consultant; Christylez Bacon was rhythm/musical consultant.)
The set by Andrew Cohen carries out the concept in upstage panels with stunning African-inspired faces painted in vivid blues, greens, and red. John D. Alexander’s lighting design intermittently casts a fractured pattern like lost memory. Sounds by Cresent R. Haynes sometimes seem from far away shores. The costumes by Moyenda Kulemeka deftly define the supporting characters’ various everyday looks—but the way Kulemeka cross-references Undine’s pricey white office wear and the ensemble’s white tribal wear is utterly amazing. It’s as if Ruffin has unlocked an ancestral echo in the play that in conventional comedy staging would not be heard.
On one hand, Fabulation is a cautionary tale about a female striver who leaned in so far she lost her balance. On another, the Mosaic production is a ceremonial reconnect with family roots. But the wonder of all is that Fabulation is fabulously funny. Just go.
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine plays through September 22, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at the Lang Theatre in the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.