To get an idea of why I was so deeply frustrated by Black Theatre Troupe's excellent production of Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine, try this: Put a DVD of your favorite movie on, turn the volume way up, then go out onto your front porch and watch the film through your front window.
Does it seem like the actors are shouting to be heard? Does it feel like you're missing subtleties of the story, and maybe parts of the action, because it's all taking place so far away from you?
That's how I felt as I strained to hear Lillie Richardson's delicious line readings, or tried to catch each bright nuance of Lynn Nottage's smart, tightly wound story about one woman's emotional reclamation. I'm certain I missed several of Steve Scally's better bits of business, too all because director Robyn Allen has chosen to stage big chunks of Nottage's dark comedy more than 20 feet from the lip of the stage, so far away from the audience that we were all leaning forward in our seats, at least categorically, to get closer to what was up on stage.
Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine
John Paul Theatre, 1202 West Thomas Road
Continues through March 18. Call 602-258-8128.
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At first I thought maybe Allen was making some kind of statement about the distance between whites and blacks, until I noticed that most of the opening-night audience was African-American, and they, too, were uncomfortably far away from the action. Then I thought maybe the only way Allen could accommodate Mike Jones' unusual and admirable sliding-scrim set design was to move the play way upstage. Finally, I decided it was just bad planning that led Allen to shove this fiery, funny slice of life so far from its audience that we might have missed how Fabulation is more clever and original than its rather tired premise about a career-driven black girl from the projects who's fallen on hard times and is forced to confront her past.
Thank goodness for the big voices and even bigger talent of Fabulation's fine cast. In the lead, Richardson displays her usual talent for both low drama and situation comedy as the social-climbing head of a PR firm who's fallen on hard times. She returns to her family in Brooklyn, each of them played skillfully by members of the ensemble, who also portray various drug addicts, long-lost friends, and streetwise jailbirds with equal aplomb. Precious J. Morris is a standout as Undine's heroin-addicted grandmother, but, as ever, Scally leads the pack in several small but effective roles that had me wondering, for the dozenth time, if there's anything this actor can't play.
Maybe Scally can convince someone to move this otherwise competently directed, beautifully acted dramedy closer to its audience. If not, there's still enough power in its performances to move and entertain its far-away audience.