Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine is an outrageously hilarious romp into the fabulated life of Undine Barnes Callas, a feisty, successful African American woman whose comeuppance to a new awareness about identity, rediscovering one’s roots, and keeping it real turn expected outcomes into unexpected moments of entertaining, but bittersweet, lessons learned.
According to Webster, to fabulate is to tell untrue or invented fantasies that are always in the present in an ongoing process of evolving. Under the artful direction of Eleanore Tapscott, Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine is a series of tragically comic turns of event in the evolution of Undine’s character in her search to make sense of the perfect fantasy life gone nightmarish.
The storyline of Fabulation is fairly formulaic: an educated black woman who is the first person in her family to go to college and doggedly determined to succeed assimilates into the role of the wealthy black bourgeoisie but loses herself in the process. We know from the start that it is only a matter of time before truth hits her in the face and makes her do a double take on what really matters.
And Undine gets slapped pretty hard: Her Latin lover husband – who married her to get a green card – tangos as quickly out of her life as he danced into it. But not before leaving her proverbially barefoot and pregnant as he absconds with all of her money as the high-powered owner of a boutique New York public relations firm.
It gets worse. Bankrupt with no place to a call home after her husband robs her and fair-weather friends abandon her, Undine is forced to return to the poor, working class neighborhood in Brooklyn where she grew up to find that nothing has changed.
Her trip to social services milks every stereotype about going on welfare in a side-splitting vignette that makes you laugh to keep from screaming. And when Undine goes looking for a heroin fix for her drug-addicted grandma, she gets busted and lands in jail. Surrounded now by junkies and immersed in a support group to deal with addiction, once again Undine is slapdashed into situations with people she would rather disown than admit they had been a part of her ghetto life experience growing up poor and black.
Tanya Baskin is a superstar in the pivotal role of Undine Barnes Callas. She has just the right pitch of haughty, demanding bitchiness as the character around which the entire story hinges, and she holds it all together. She’s onstage in every scene and never misses a beat with her pithy asides to the audience as she reflects upon the anxiety-filled dilemmas of the prideful Undine who falls from grace in the process of coming to terms with who she really is.
Undine’s Brooklyn family still know her as Sharona Barnes. She gets ribbed by her would-be poet brother, Flow, delightfully played with offbeat street cred craziness by Terry Spann. He talks about her to her facing saying, “She’s been to England, but she has not been home” after a 14-year hiatus of Undine avoiding her family. Mom and Dad, played by Gayle Carney and Manuel McCoy, are strong as would-be police officers who work instead as security guards still trying to win the Lotto.
Played with the exotic, playboy appeal expected for a gold-digging husband, Alex Lopez oozes with oily slick Latino charm. And Reggie Garner plays Guy to the hilt as the strong shoulder in which the pregnant Undine finds an unlikely romantic interest on her date with a junkie.
Krista Forney-Wright, Lexie Lansbury and Marcela Onyango are fun characters as jail inmates – double-dutch jumping home girls from round the way, now welfare mamas – who fill out the colorful cast of characters in multiple roles played by all the actors in the cast.
Set Designer Matt Liptak’s street scene construction captures the feeling of urban life through items such as a brick wall filled with subway poster art, a photo of the Empire State Building, or a posh desk and ostentatious telephone from Undine’s better days. And Liptak did not miss, including a basketball hoop overhung with a pair of red sneakers, a symbol of urban violence and the fallen kids who die on the streets of America every day.
Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine meets up with The Devil Wears Prada in a comic Imitation of Life with Black-ish pop that will keep you laughing from start to finish. It takes on stereotypes about race, class and gender, yet remains poignantly transformative in its redemptive message about the crash before the fall when we betray the essence of who we really are. And it breathes new life into it in the process. Go see it.
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.
Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine plays through July 22, 2017, at Port City Playouse, performing at Gunston Theatre Two – 2700 Lang Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.