A protagonist loses all, even her playwright's empathy

The Baltimore Sun

Poor Undine Barnes-Calles.

Not only does this formerly high-flying executive find herself bankrupt, unemployed, homeless and pregnant, she is the creation of a playwright who takes every opportunity to humiliate her.

Playwright Lynn Nottage seems so unsympathetic to the title character in Fabulation or, the Re-Education of Undine (running at Center Stage) that a reverse psychology sets in. The audience finds itself rooting for the character to somehow break free of the script and stick it to the author.

Nottage is thoughtful, talented, witty and smart; she's the recipient of a 2007 MacArthur "genius" grant. But broad satire is probably not her strong suit. She is most adept delivering astute psychological portraits, as she does in her best-known work, Intimate Apparel, where inherent ambiguity precludes easy moralizing.

It's true that fabulations such as Undine intentionally place characters in absurd situations to teach them a lesson, but the best playwrights empathize with their characters. Nottage clearly has little patience with buppies (black, upwardly mobile professionals).

Undine was born Sharona Watkins, and in the play, she experiences her downfall when her cad of a husband absconds with her money. She is forced to return to Brooklyn, N.Y.'s public housing to live with her security-guard parents, her underachieving brother and her grandmother, who is addicted to heroin. Unfortunately, Undine long ago disowned her family because she feared it would impede her rise to the top.

I don't expect Nottage to approve of Undine's behavior, but would it hurt to concede the character a virtue or two? Just as no one is without flaws, no person, even a fictitious person, lacks a saving grace. It's not that audience members will regret a few hours spent watching Center Stage's production. The show is often sharp and funny, particularly a scene in which Undine organizes welfare recipients to protest their treatment at the hands of callous social services staffers.

With the exception of Natalie Venetia Belcon, who plays Undine, the eight cast members perform multiple roles.

Belcon's face is so lovely that her visage is almost enough to convince the audience that Undine possesses inner grace. (We're told all our lives that beauty is only skin-deep, but we never fully believe it.) Belcon delivers an animated performance that softens Undine's most disagreeable qualities.

Lizan Mitchell, who plays the grandmother, is a wiry twist-tie of a woman who effortlessly commands the stage and explodes with personality, and Jerome Preston Bates exudes quiet dignity as Undine's father. Other members of the cast, however, are more artificial and mannered.

Jessica Ford's costumes occasionally disappoint. In the first scene, Undine wears a white coat with an unflattering fit, and her attire isn't as stylish and expensive as one would expect of a woman in her elevated position.

Ford also gives Belcon a peculiar do. In early scenes, her hair is pulled back and elegantly rolled. As the play goes on, tendrils escape, giving the character a more frazzled look.

"Aha!" I thought, "a metaphor." I reasoned that as Undine unwound, so would her coiffure, ending up natural and casual.

But that's not what happens. In the final scene, Undine's hair is mostly loose, but a tight roll remains on one side. The effect is odd and distracting.

Nottage's play gets the Fabulation part of its title from an epic poem about Br'er Rabbit that Undine's brother, Flow, has been writing for 14 years. The poem is terrific - tough and humorous, jam-packed with meaning. More to the point, those six stanzas explore, and with more finesse, every theme that Nottage takes 70 pages to explicate in her play:

"It that ghetto paradox/when we rabbit and we fox,/and we basking in the blight,/though we really wanna fight.

"It be 'bout who we be today/and in our fabulating way,/'bout saying that we be/without a-pology./It's a circle that been run/That ain't no one ever won./It that silly rabbit grin,/'bout running from your skin."

Sometimes, less is so much more.

if you go

Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine, runs through March 8 at Center Stage,

700 N. Calvert St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 7 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $15-$60. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.

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