BWW Review: FABULATION, OR, THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE at Mosaic Theater
At the outset of Mosaic Theatre's fifth season opener, "Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine," the biggest problem facing its central character is the lack of a celebrity for a big Manhattan benefit she's throwing. A high powered PR agent, she throws out a bunch of names cavalierly, and belittles her assistant, who is responsible for getting it all done.
Suddenly, that is the least of her problems, as her accountant brings her news her husband has disappeared with all of her money. Thus begins a downward spiral of indignity after indignity until she's back home with the family she's ignored for years, and then she falls further still. Felicia Curry is ferocious in the part, determined to go on despite pitfalls everywhere she turns.
But so much of "Fabulation" is sharp and funny, one could hardly categorize it as a drama despite all the downturns.
The 2004 work by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage came a year after her breakthrough "Intimate Apparel," which is becoming an opera at the Met this season. "Fabulation" was seen by some as a century-later sequel to that story of a New York City seamstress in 1905. But there's more to "Fabulation" than that, as picked up by dramaturg Faedra Chatard Carpenter, who ties it to West African tribal traditions, the role of the trickster in Brer Rabbit tales, and Edith Wharton's "A Custom of the Country" - all of which are mentioned in the text.
The real basis is "Undine" itself, a 19th century German novella of that title from the forgotten Heinrich Karl de la Motte Foque. That German baron may be largely forgotten today, but his fable about a woman who only becomes fully human after suffering a loss, later influenced Hans Christian Anderson's enduring "The Little Mermaid."
It's director Eric Ruffin who really gets a handle on the material, though, with bracing, percussive scene changes done in a circular manner and dance also derived from Africa. It gives a driving, incessant pace to the piece while strangely grounding at the same time. And Ruffin must deserve at least some of the credit for the delightful timing and delivery of its supercharged cast. The only problem with it opening night was adjusting to just how much laughter and crowd reaction it would create. Some lines were swallowed by the extent of the laughs; other audience members were audibly agreeing or reacting to action by the end, as if so fully engulfed by the story they didn't realize it.
It was almost a surprise to see the ensemble cast of seven who created more than twice as many fully realized characters. They included Lauryn Simone as the beleaguered assistant and a pregnant teen; Aakhu TuahNera Freeman as a spacey grandma and a fierce (and familiar) bureaucrat; and Carlos Saldaña as both the bad love interest and the good one.
The familiar William Newman Jr. portrays Undine's father, a priest and and an inappropriately aged husband of a childhood friend. Roz White, who starred in Mosaic's Sister Rosetta Tharpe musical, is back as a mother and two other characters. And though James Whalen was fine in a thankless role as the accountant, he returns to do a terrific monologue in a narcotics anonymous meeting in the second act.
All were strong; if one were a scene stealer it was Kevin E. Thorne II who devises a rhyme he performs at one point and whose every reaction is poised for a laugh or audience response, even if it's only an eyebrow raise.
But it's all in service to Curry's remarkable performance, the kind that's so emotionally demanding, you can't imagine anyone doing it nightly -let alone twice daily some days of the week.
"Fabulation" brings a flashy start to Mosaic's declared "#WokeSeason" that will end with a world premiere trilogy on Emmett Till. And it seems to reflect a boost in grants for the company of about $2 million with an expanded design team led by set designer Andrew Cohen, lighting designer John D. Alexander, costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka and sound designer Cresent R. Haynes.
Cohen's stage is somewhat stark, but backed by a striking mural and fencing that echoes the circular and timeless themes in the work.
Running time: About 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 12 minute intermission.
Photo credit: Felicia Curry in "Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Udine" at Mosaic Theater Company. Photo by Christopher Banks.
"Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Udine" continues through Sept. 22 at the Mosaic Theater Company, performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE. Tickets at 202-399-7993 or online.