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Charlayne Woodard in Fabulation
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Designer Walt Spangler has included a dress form on his somewhat busy set for Lynn Nottage's Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine. The soiled object hangs among a conglomeration of signage and chain-link fencing that's meant to conjure commercial, overrun Brooklyn. The reason for its presence will be obvious to anyone who's seen Nottage's prize-winning Intimate Apparel earlier this season: It's a reminder of that play's seamstress Esther Mills and her halting efforts to better herself through Chekhov-like working hours.

It's also an allusion to how, at the onset of this century, the flawed Fabulation heroine Undine Barnes has risen to a career peak that Esther Mills could only dream about at the beginning of the last century. Undine (Charlayne Woodard), born Sharona Watkins but so ashamed of her background that she has erased it, has socked away mucho cash earned from running her own publicity firm. The thriving business, by the way, looks a good deal like a stateside sister agency to Edina Monsoon's shop in Absolutely Fabulous; Undine's even got her own Bubbles in the perky Stephie (Melle Powers) and her own Patsy in the shallow Allison (Saidah Arrika Ekulona).

But whereas the thick-headed, thick-skinned AbFab fool that Jennifer Saunders created for herself gets pounded by small comeuppances that never sink in, Nottage's Undine is gobsmacked with monumental retribution. Her Brazilian husband, Hervé (Robert Montano), absconds with her fortune, leaving her bereft of friends and financial wherewithal. She's forced to move back to Brooklyn and bunk with her father (Keith Randolph Smith), mother (Saidah Arrika Ekulona again), and brother Flow (Daniel Breaker), all of whom are security guards. She's also forced to acknowledge that Hervé did leave something behind when he fled: She's pregnant.

What ensues for her is a series of humiliations that would make Candide thank his lucky stars. Having learned that her grandmother (Myra Lucretia Taylor) is a heroin addict, Undine is arrested while scoring heroin for the old lady. Sentenced to six months drug rehabilitation, she finds herself in sympathy with the recovering addicts even though she's not one of them. She's especially drawn to Guy (Robert Montano again) and reluctantly begins dating him. Meanwhile, her progressing, unwanted pregnancy prompts a battle with social services bureaucracy. In short, she has to learn how to deal with developments and perhaps even embrace them.

With Fabulation, the prolific Nottage seems to be slapping insensitive buppies on the wrist for social and psychological misdemeanors committed on their way to what they see as middle-class respectability. To make her statement, Nottage has written a series of tragi-comic sketches during which Undine is confronted with the injustices of a world she thought she'd left behind when, during her Dartmouth graduation week, she heard her family being mocked by friends and decided she'd never expose herself to that kind of embarrassment again. Her backward journey is a contemporary take on the Grimm Brothers' "Girl Who Trod on a Loaf," which describes what happens to an uppity child who uses a loaf of freshly bought bread as a stepping-stone over a puddle and sinks into a frightening netherworld as a result of her reckless action.

Nottage's vignettes are sobering fun for audiences to watch as long as no one thinks to question the logic behind them or to notice that they're leading to a familiar moralistic conclusion. Those able to put aside the likelihood that Undine would surely land another high-powered public relations job if she looked for one and the unlikelihood that she'd fall for the unsophisticated Guy will get kicks from scenes in which Nottage is both funny and critical; it's the rare sequence here that doesn't register high on the laugh meter as well as the shock meter. (Undine's trip to see a Yoruba priest is one clinker.) Thrown into a cell, she's menaced by a woman built along the lines of Refrigerator Perry (Myra Lucretia Taylor) and wised-up by a straight-talking hooker (Saidah Arrika Ekulona). Walking through her old neighborhood, she bumps into old friends Devora (Ekulona) and Rosa (Melle Powers). At her rehabilitation session, she listens to an ex-school teacher (Stephen Kunken) brag about smoking crack before giving great lectures on books he's never read. Wishing to apply for medical aid, she tangles with a bureaucrat (Myra Lucretia Taylor).

Setting these scenes in motion, Nottage gets ticket-buyers smiling even as their jaws are dropping -- if such a thing is possible. She's also able to tug the emotions as she sends up various underclass milieus. The playwright depicts the Watkins family members as troubled but also makes them convincingly three-dimensional. When mother Watkins expressing the family's hurt over Undine's having told an interviewer that they were all killed in a fire, the damage that's been done registers. The moment is made all the more plangent when father Watkins says, "We ain't blind. We read...We are your family. The Watkins family is there inside you."

Daniel Breaker, Charlayne Woodard, Keith Randolph Smith, and
Saidah Arrika Ekulona in Fabulation
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
While fabulation lands Undine/Sharona in a jam, Nottage's fabulation about the wages of the wrong kind of fabulation lands her actors in a pot of jam. They're all excellent. Charlayne Woodard, on a break from her self-penned solo endeavors, doesn't initially seem ideal casting as the eponymous character; there's an irrepressible joy in her thin frame that puts her at odds with the mirthless Undine. In the first scene, the acting she's doing shows through, but she's increasingly touching thereafter and the tears that she eventually sheds are unquestionably moving. There are those who say that actors shouldn't cry on stage so that the audience will, but when Woodard cries, we all cry with her.

The other seven players, executing their multiple roles in Kaye Voyce's witty costumes and under David Weiner's imaginative lighting, keep hitting bull's eyes. Saidah Arrika Ekulona may score the highest because she has the funniest handful of types to impersonate: Her hooker is a scream and so's her Allison, worried that she may have hitched her friendship to an extinguishing star. Myra Lucretia Taylor is at her best as the hard-hearted caseworker ensconced in what could pass for a fortune teller's booth but she's also at her best in the jailhouse scene and as the fix-needy grandma. Robert Montano is suave as Herve and just as sincerely un-suave as Guy. Daniel Breaker does his best turn as Flow and Melle Powers's Stephie, wearing a miniskirt with fur inserts, is cute. Keith Randolph Smith makes Father Watkins a strong, anchoring presence. Stephen Kunken is a hoot as the crack-addicted prof and as Undine's intimidated accountant. Kate Whoriskey has directed them all with plenty of inspiration; she also directed the Baltimore world premiere of Intimate Apparel and perhaps this production is a consolation prize for her not being asked to helm the Roundabout production of that play.

Since Nottage's Intimate Apparel is set in 1905 and Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine is set in the present, the playwright may have in mind an August Wilson-like project: In this case, to create a series of works about an African-American woman representative of each of the intervening decades. If so, bring on the sisters!

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