What happens when you hit rock bottom, yet somehow continue on a downward spiral? That is the premise of the opening play for Mosaic Theater’s fifth season, Lynn Nottage’s “Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine,” now playing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, home of the now-seasoned theater company headed up by Ari Roth.
This satirical look at the consequences of upward mobility, at the expense of one’s roots, is both a cautionary tale and a wry observation of the pitfalls that can ensue a meteoric ascent into the elite. Caution: it might all come crashing down unexpectedly.
Undine, played by Felicia Curry (making her debut with Mosaic in this production), is a hot PR executive with her own firm and high-end clients. Married to Hervê (played by Carlos Saldaña), a Casanova-type from Argentina, Undine has it all. That is until her husband absconds with every dime she has in the world.
Just like that, she is relegated to living with her parents in the projects of Brooklyn, a place that she thought she had long left behind, at the expense of severing her ties with her family for 14 years.
We watch as Undine, using a direct address to the audience at times, rues her downward slide made complicated by an unintended pregnancy. Murphy’s law then sets in, as a series of unfortunate incidents takes her lower and lower into the pits of bankruptcy, criminality and dependency on social services.
Her parents, played by the amazing Roz White (who also plays a few more characters flawlessly) and William T. Newman Jr. as her father (also playing multiple roles, including a Harvard-educated Yoruba priest), are unmoving in their love and forgiveness for their daughter. But her grandmother, played by Aakhu TuahNera Freeman, whose heroin addiction lands Undine in jail, is less forgiving, pointing out how soulless her granddaughter has become.
Calling on a variety of myths, including the Germanic connotation of the name “Undine,” which refers to a mythological woman who loses her soul until she marries a mortal and gives birth, the play makes a number of historical and cultural references.
Near the beginning of her downfall, Undine consults the Yoruba priest, who instructs her to make a sacrifice to the orisha Elegba, the trickster of the Yoruba deities, of $1,000 and a bottle of Mt. Gay premium rum.
The scene elicits laughs, but firmly roots the rest of the play into an African and African diaspora cultural atmosphere, highlighted by the cast wearing white garments and playing a variety of hand-held percussive instruments at intervals throughout the two-act play.
Directed by Eric Ruffin, a graduate of Howard University and director of the multiple Helen Hayes award-winning “Black Nativity,” this play that diverges from playwright Nottage’s usually gritty realism, is driven by the underlying musical interludes that at one time become an African American ring shout, and at others, a traditional African ceremony heralding the change that is coming upon the protagonist.
Without giving away the ending, Undine is reeducated and reintroduced, in a self-deprecating dialogue with her new suitor, Guy (also played by Saldaña) and in the end, transforms from a self-serving bitchy woman-in-charge to a self-reflective woman who returns to her origins.
“Fabulation,” is a funny, yet morally didactic play that expands Nottage’s oeuvre and makes plain that she is a force to be reckoned with in the theater world. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for her previous works “Ruined” (2009) and “Sweat” (2017), she is only the second African American to achieve that honor and the first woman of any race to be awarded twice.
“Lynn Nottage is one of the most esteemed playwrights of our time,” said Mosaic Founding Artistic Director Ari Roth, referencing the playwright’s body of work — “Ruined,” Sweat,” “Crumbs From the Table of Joy,” among others — over the past three decades.
“It promises to be another banner year for Lynn Nottage, as it was last season when Signature Theatre in New York made her the center of their season, producing several works including ‘Fabulation’, revealing the comedy’s timeliness as a Reverse Gentrification journey along with its caustic critique of mad money materialism,” Roth said.
This winter, one of Nottage’s first breakout plays, “Intimate Apparel,” gets transformed into an opera at the Metropolitan Opera in co-production with Lincoln Center Theatre.
“Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine” plays through Sept. 22 with several post-show discussions planned.
Mosaic will host a series of post-show discussions exploring resonant themes present in both works with a diverse set of panelists. These free post-show discussions, beginning immediately after the performance, include cast talkbacks on Sept. 12 and Sept. 19, and will cover topics such as “Moving On Up: The Black Middle Class” (Sept. 8, following the matinee), “Abandonment(s): Upward (and Downward) Mobility and Finding a Path Home” (Sept. 14, following the matinee), and “Self-Fashioning and/or Alter Egos” (Sept. 7, following the matinee).
Performance times are 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, go to mosaictheater.org/fabulation.