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He Says: Signature’s Funny Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine From Top to Bottom

He Says: Signature’s Funny Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine From Top to Bottom

Coming off the hotness and the sweatiness of her last play’s Broadway debut, Lynn Nottage, the playwright of the upcoming revival, By the Way, Meet Vera Stark at Signature, the recent lyrical Mlima’s Tale at the Public, and the Pulitzer prize-winning Sweat and Ruined, has brought forth, for inspection and un-wrapping, a revival of her 2004 play, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine at the Signature Theatre off-Broadway.  Nottage deftly shines a satirical spotlight on the life, destruction, and re-education of Undine, a powerful and forceful woman from NYC’s black bourgeoisie who stumbles quickly down the ladder of success smashing head first into almost every obstacle, hurdle, and prejudice that one could imagine existing in America. It is a solid and biting comedy that has far more layers of introspective deconstruction then what meets the eye. Especially as it gets its hilarity started in the pristine offices of Undine, swimming in a constructed faux haughtiness applied with the strongest and broadest stroke of silliness, almost slipping into an Ab Fab parody parallel, before slowly finding its reality and groove in the sound and language of its troubled lead’s heart with each step downward.

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Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis, Heather Alicia Simms. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Like Sweat, addiction plays a prominent role in Fabulation, but this time the lead character, the most fabulous Undine, played with a wise wit by the detailed Cherise Boothe (PH’s Milk Like Sugar), is addicted to something other than the drugs or opiates that a few of the other characters within the later half of this sneakily smart play are. At times over the top, Undine, as defined with an exaggerated presence in her glimmering blazer get-up, courtesy of the fun and festive costuming by Montana Levi Blanco (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart Back), is addicted to status and bravado, maintaining a calm public exterior (for the most part) and a hefty distance from her working-class roots. She embraces all that is fabulous, although we can see that it’s all Chanel wrapping paper stretched thinly with unknown strain and stress over a re-fabricated persona, hoping to disguise the deeply ingrained layers of shame, guilt, fear, and rage.  Praying no one will see the beyond the packaging. It’s a Fabulation of the highest degree, and she succeeds until it is unravels and the wrapping tears. Then, when she least expects it, she must find a new way to wrap herself up once again, but this time with something possibly less flashy and high end.

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Cherise Boothe, J. Bernard Calloway, Nikiya Mathis, Marcus Callender. Photo by Monique Carboni.

After her smooth-talking and utterly gorgeous (on the outside) Argentinian boyfriend, Hervé, perfectly played by the flexible and dynamic Ian Lassiter (NYCC’s Ring Twice for Miranda) skips town leaving financial ruin and the focus of a police investigation in his wake, Undine takes a drastic nose dive down the ranks of the social class structure, from glamorous PR firm owner to sharing a bed with her beloved but troubled grandmother, played lovingly by Heather Alicia Simms (Public’s Barbecue). She had purposefully burned down her family a long time ago, played divinely by Nikiya Mathis (ATC’s Skeleton Crew) as Mother/others, J. Bernard Calloway (NYTW’s Hadestown) as Father/others, and Marcus Callender (Starz’s “Power”) as brother Flow/Dealer/others, and now has to sit face to face across the kitchen table and explain (in much the way Herve has to do the same with Undine in his beautiful crafted confessional). But that’s not even the lowest of low she is has to experience before finding her space in her own sun. She looses her friends, her status, her name, her income, her persona, and almost her freedom along the way down, forcing her into a holding cell, a lineup at social services, a OB/GYN’s office, and a rehab group for drug addiction, each and everyone hilariously orchestrated, peppered with over-blown stereotypes and cartoon characters. This vast array of Carol Burnett-like personas sometimes distances ourself from the emotional core, making it hard to really join Undine in her implosion. We are entertained, wholeheartedly, but not moved in the same way. But each of these characters are facilitated by an expert class of comedian actors who don unique faces, postures, and a parade of wigs, thanks to Cookie Jordan (Broadway’s The Cher Show) to usher Undine down to the depths of her shame; the above mentioned actors, plus MaYaa Boateng (Delacorte’s Julius Caesar) as Stephie/Devora/others and Dashiell Eaves (Broadway’s Coram Boy) as the Accountant/Addict #1/others.

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MaYaa Boateng, Ian Lassiter, J. Bernard Calloway, Dashiell Eaves, Heather Alicia Simms, Cherise Boothe, Nikiya Mathis, Marcus Callender. Photo by Monique Carboni.

As directed with a flash for exaggerated humor and solid depth by the dynamic Lileana Blain-Cruz (NYTW’s The House That…, Red Speedo), Fabulation finds its way delicately from affected, balancing stereotypes at every turn, to a place of fairly authentic sentimentality.  Designed strongly by Adam Rigg (MTC’s Actually), with tight lighting by Yi Zhao (LCT’s Pipeline), and solid sound by Palmer Hefferan (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact), Nottage and Blain-Cruz have created something that feels superficial at first, but with each breath somehow find its its way through the ridiculousness to the non-affected tango of life, with the plain speaking utterly gorgeous (on the inside) Guy, also portrayed perfectly by Lassiter.

The play ends simply, almost too much like many young playwrights penning their first solo biographical show about their growth and enlightenment. It’s touching, enjoyable, and engaging but lacks a connection to our soul overall like her more mature plays. Nottage once “expressed disappointment that her work was constantly defined by both her own race and gender, unlike her white male counterparts” (Ellis-Petersen, Hannah, “Playwright Lynn Nottage: theatre is the last bastion of segregation”The Guardian, February 22, 2016.) and although I’m not sure this production will knock her out of that defining playground of playwrights like Sweatdid, Fabulation, at least for me, broadened the way I looked at her development and writing skills.  It’s as tight and meaningful as Sweat or Ruined but through a different approach to finding the air to breath. “I don’t belong here“, but this whole cast of quality characters certainly belongs up there on that stage.

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Cherise Boothe. Photo by Monique Carboni.

For more, go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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