When, and how, do the stories we tell about ourselves turn from fables to lies? And can we find ourselves again amidst the constructs we’ve built up? These are the questions Lynn Nottage asks in Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, currently being revived by Signature Theatre at off-Broadway's Pershing Square Signature Center. It’s no coincidence that the word “fabulation” is a term of art not only in psychology, but in literary criticism too. In medical or psychological usage, it describes the act of telling untruthful stories by a person who believes they are real or who cannot deal with real events. In literary criticism, it denotes a style that is similar to or combines magical realism and post modernism. It therefore combines realistic and unrealistic or fantasy elements in one work. Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine works on both levels.
We are introduced to Undine (Cherise Boothe) at a pivotal moment in her life when the fabulous (pun intended) life she has built for herself begins to crumble around her. Undine Barnes Calles is THE public relations agent in NYC. She can make or break you, deliver the celebrity du jour to your event, and out alpha any male in the room. She has spent 14 years building her company, but it all falls apart overnight when she is in the middle of a big event and gets a visit from her accountant (Dashiell Eaves) and the FBI with bad news.
Undine learns that the downward spiral is a lot faster than the uphill climb. And the one absolutely unforgiveable sin in uptown society is being poor. Although she hasn’t been there in 14 years, Undine has no choice but to return to her roots in Brooklyn. Despite Thomas Wolfe’s assertion that “You can’t go home again,” Undine is forced to believe the line from Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” that “home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
But they don’t have to like it. Her brother Flow (Marcus Callender) is openly bitter and contemptuous of her abandonment and subsequent fall from her lofty perch. Her mother (Nikiya Mathis) and father (J. Bernard Calloway) are more forgiving but hurt at her rejection of them. And Grandma (Heather Alicia Simms) is just out of it. Undine has to try and reconcile the person she has become and the stories she has told about her upbringing, with the truth. And she has to adjust to her new circumstances and figure out who to be and how to survive.
Structurally, Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine belongs to a fabulation/magical realism style. Undine often breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly to let us know what is going on with her internally. Scenes morph into each other with props and set pieces being carried on and off stage with no break in the action. Certain characters are pure symbols. Like her husband Hervé (Ian Lassiter), who is a caricature of a Latin lover. We are introduced to him during a fourth wall break where Undine is remembering her meeting him. They tango on the set that is her office in the current day (and what a tango it is, wow! Kudos to choreographer Valeria Solomonoff.), and then he fades away and the office scene resumes.
If Lynn Nottage wrote a prescription, I’d buy a ticket – I know it’d cure what ails me. She brings razor edged clarity to everything she writes, and undeniable truth. In Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, she also has a gleam of fun in her eye. Despite the serious questions she raises, she also allows us to laugh without feeling guilty about it and imbues all of her characters with humanity and a saving grace or two. Lileana Blain-Cruz has done a masterful job staging this complex piece smoothly and elegantly. She gets an able assist from the set design by Adam Rigg and lighting design by Yi Zhao which makes the scene transitions easy and not clunky.
Cherise Boothe knocks it out of the park as Undine. She navigates the total transformation her character goes through, from large and in charge to beaten down and confused to finding a new path, nimbly and believably every step of the way. The rest of the cast, who all play multiple roles, are a great ensemble that create specific, distinct characters. They are aided by costume designer Montana Levi Blanco and hair & wig designer Cookie Jordan to such an extent that I was unable to identify who played the 14 characters not attributed in the Playbill but listed in the script. Bravo to all.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
What the popular press says...
"You may be cackling too loudly to take it all in as it unfolds but, like a good fable, the play has a message that lingers past its scrappily-ever-after finale."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York
"Director Lileana Blain-Cruz keeps all of Nottage’s comic balls in the air, swiftly changing scenes as the eight-person cast take on multiple roles. Mathis, Mayaa Boateng and Ian Lassiter are particular standouts, stealing scenes with the smallest of gestures or the slightest of twists to a line reading. In the end, though, Fabulation feels both slight and abbreviated, like the pilot for a promising but canceled-too-soon series that might have developed Undine and the characters around her over time."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
"Theatergoers seeing Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine are in for a delightful surprise if they're familiar with Lynn Nottage only through her searing, Pulitzer Prize-winning naturalistic dramas Ruined and Sweat. This 2004 satire being revived by Signature Theatre reveals the playwright working in a distinctly silly mode. Depicting the riches-to-rags story of a black female business executive forced to return to her roots, the play earns big laughs with its cheeky, audacious humor."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...