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There are hundreds of small ways that we start over in life: we transfer to a new school, move houses, start jobs, begin and end relationships, have children. Fortunately, most of us undertake these changes by choice. In Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, now onstage at the Lantern, the titular character goes through many of these changes all at once—none of them by choice. For a play that starts with a wallop of ill fate, this production is at once funny, touching, and surprisingly relatable.
The benefits of breaking through
The black box theater at St. Stephen’s has permitted the Lantern to try several different configurations over the years. For Fabulation, director Amina Robinson and scenic designer Dirk Durossette chose one of the Lantern’s more classic configurations, with audience seating occupying two sides of the room and the stage claiming the other two, plus the central playing space.
This layout does two things: it allows Angela Bey (they/them), playing Undine (she/her), to take a phone call at the start of the play, during which they speak, disengaged from the audience, into the empty space between the two sections of seating. It also allows Bey, when Undine does break the fourth wall, to tread the boards in a way that connects every person in the audience to the performance.
The first time the fourth wall breaks feels jarring, like a record scratch, but the conceit allows Undine to cover a lot of ground: rewinding to relevant parts of her backstory, giving us information about the other characters she encounters, granting us insight into her internal monologue. It is, in truth, a masterful script, which Bey, who seldom leaves the stage, handles brilliantly.
A versatile cast
Although Bey is the only Fabulation character to break the fourth wall, their castmates are still participants in the metanarrative, each playing several characters, some of whom transform lightning-fast onstage. Wigs and costumes, yes, but also their physicality and their voices, with a notable assist from dialect coach Lynne Innerst.
Gregory Isaac plays both a nervous accountant with a Jerry Lewis-like vocal tick and a brash former college professor whose fall from grace includes court-mandated drug counseling. We first meet Marchael Giles as a deadly serious FBI agent but it’s as Undine’s brother, Flow, that the actor really shines. Kishia Nixon starts the play as Undine’s sweet-but-not-necessarily-competent assistant, Stephie, but a jailhouse monologue she delivers toward the end of the first act was one of the highlights of the show. Joining them, Tanesha M. Ford, Kash Goins, Ebony Pullum, and Zach Valdez all pull more than their weight bringing Fabulation to light.
The biblical Book of Job tells the story of a man whose faith God tests with all kinds of challenges and losses. The story is often used to rationalize “bad things” happening to “good people”—the idea that God never gives you more than you can handle.
The truth is, many of us find ourselves with more than we can handle, whether we think that’s thanks to the divine, or some other circumstance. This tests more than our faith in the almighty, if we ever had faith at all: it tests our faith in ourselves, and in our community. It shows us who our true friends are. When this happens, it’s rarely funny. Nottage could have turned Fabulation into a Greek-style tragedy. But what she did, instead, was write a comedy. And a very good one, at that.
What, When, Where
Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine. By Lynn Nottage, directed by Amina Robinson. $25-$41. Through June 26, 2022 at St. Stephen’s Theater, 923 Ludlow Street, Philadelphia. (215) 829-0395 or lanterntheater.org.
Proof of Covid-19 vaccination and a valid ID are required to attend, and guests must remain masked throughout the show.
St. Stephen’s Theater is not a wheelchair-accessible venue; however, the Lantern is able to accommodate early seating. Contact the box office at (215) 829-0395 or [email protected] to make arrangements for this or other needs.
There is a brief strobe light effect used during the first act of Fabulation.
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