Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine, Karamu

(Like the "Queen of Mean" Leona Helmsley, Undine is an arrogant businesswoman brought low.)

Whether it’s the infinite incarceration of Bernie Madoff or the New England Patriots losing (any time), we all enjoy seeing the high and mighty brought down to earth. And that’s what happens to an arrogant 37-year-old African-American woman in Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine by Lynn Nottage, now at the Karamu Performing Arts Theatre.

Undine is a hard-charging, self-made phenom who runs her own celebrity PR firm with a sharp tongue and an iron fist. But all that changes early on when her accountant informs her that her jet-set Argentine husband has absconded with all her money. And on top of it all, she’s pregnant.

The bulk of the play then deals with Undine’s journey back to her roots, to her family in the Brooklyn projects that she hasn’t visited in 14 years. That’s the family she thought she had left behind for good—even intimating to one interviewer that they all died in a tragic fire some years before.

But her past is all there, including a grandmother who pretends to be a diabetic to hide her heroin addiction, a brother Flow who is continually fashioning rap rhymes, and some old friends who have moved on in their own ways.

Structured around various cultural and ethnic stereotypes, Fabulation is studded with many witticisms and clever insights. And the production, directed by Caroline Jackson Smith, comes very close to capturing the right tempo and vibe of what should be a fast-paced comedy of contemporary manners.

But everything plays a beat too slowly, turning scenes that could have been crisp and piercing into something more blurred. This is seen in the performance of Kimberly May as Undine. At the start, May shoots for the breezy bitchiness of Leona Helmsley but can’t quite capture the smooth, unimpeded selfishness that’s required. As a result, her “decline and fall” doesn’t feel as precipitous or as compelling as it might have.

But May has some good moments, particularly in a scene in a rehab counseling session where Undine (who was arrested while helpfully buying smack for granny) makes up a personal drug history and then sort of laments the fact that she never lived that colorful life. That is just one of the twists Nottage throws into the mix, twists that make Fabulation almost fabulous.

Among the supporting actors, who play multiple roles, there are some who succeed in crafting the fast, easily recognizable characters the script demands. Brenda Adrine is perfect as a high-attitude inmate Undine meets after the arrest, and Joseph Primes is solid as Undine’s rigid father and as Guy, a recovering addict who falls for the revamped Undine.

Stacey Malone is sharp as Undine’s friend Allison. And she and Andrea Belser share a nice scene as Undine’s “Double Dutch” pals from school. While Tony Zanoni does a fine job as the first confessional addict in the group session, his drug dealer character is unintentionally comical due to a wacky walking style.

Some productions are largely dependent on finding and maintaining a presentation style that teeters on a knife-edge, between too broad and too safe. Fabulation came close to getting that balance right on opening weekend, and it is hoped it will only improve as the run continues.

Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine
Through October 11, at Karamu Performing Arts Theatre,
2355 East 89th Street, 216-795-7077

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