First, Lynn Nottage is a master story teller. Secondly, she is a master playwright, an avid spinner of profound characterizations and themes. With an antic zeal for weaving humor throughout organic dialogue that establishes her unique characters, Nottage continually lays bare the most exasperating and trenchant aspects of the human condition. If one is color blind, which Nottage mightily encourages, you see yourself in the arc of her characters’ inevitable development. For growth is the sum total of where we all are going, is it not?
FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE, wonderfully directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, is typical Nottage in its maverick brilliance and marvelous exploration of the complexities of black culture and identity. Essentially, with sardonic humor and LOL comedic fun, Nottage spirals out the larger-than life evolution, devolution and reaffirmation of the fabulous Undine. This hybrid genre two-act play (satire, “narrative of the life,” comedy-with threads of the macabre fantastic) strikes with irony and hyperbolic authenticity, turning every stereotype on its head to arrive at a satisfying resolution.
Currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center, the production is a must-see for its LMAO wit and profound revelations about class and culture. And tucked carefully away between the guffaws and belly laughs is this universal wisdom. When pursuing wealth and status, sidestep the alluring predations and pitfalls by remaining real. One way or another during your life’s journey, you’re going to get to the end of yourself. So you might as well avoid all the heartache and space shuttle gyrations and keep it soul local! Hyper money and status don’t bring truth unless you pivot, plummet and fall. When you reach bottom, if you’re still alive, you “get it,” and will then appreciate what you’ve learned.
Importantly, in FABULATION, OR THE-RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE, Nottage’s protagonist bounces off the most reprehensible and meretricious elements of the nouveau riche who “seduce” the black bourgeoisie into internalizing their corrupted values. Chief among these include the canard that money and celebrity bring personal power and satisfaction. Undine comes across this truth through a divergent, fantastic, incredulous sequence of events that can only be likened to divine comedy. As we follow her on the ride, if our eyes are open, our mouths eventually breathe out a sigh of relief for it will be well for her. But at various twists and egregious turns downward, we believe Undine to be heading to hell with no one to pull her back except Nottage’s deft story telling.
At the outset of the play, we identify an apparently successful Undine. Portrayed with a piquant and vibrant drama queen personality, Cherise Boothe continually astonishes with engaging humor and likability. Her Undine hits all the emotional high notes of comedy with a range of authenticity that keeps the audience laughing. Yet intriguingly we are aware of the seriousness of her wise commentary beneath all of the humorous riot.
From her demeanor and treatment of underlings, we note that Undine’s rabid and rapacious ambition and power has steered her to the top of her game. We discover she owns and manages a PR firm catering to the needs of the black bourgeoisie. Humorously, we learn this after her accountant and an FBI agent inform her she’s “got some issues to deal with.” Ironically, her success and the lifestyle it precipitates ends up placing her in a situation that she is ill equipped to handle. This noxious situation moves in the form of Hervé (the smooth Ian Lassiter), a slick Argentinian whose fabulous tango moves, hot kisses and an ingenious sleight of hand where her bank account is concerned sweep her up into a two-year marriage. When Hervé absconds with her money and life’s work, this ending initiates Undine’s journey and the dynamic momentum of the play.
Shepherded by the adept directing skills of Blain-Cruz, we watch Undine who Nottage moves from the interaction of this opening scene to an Undine “confidential. Upon the arrival of Agent Duva, Undine breaks the fourth wall and elicits our confidence to explain how she became “Undine.” Eschewing her Brooklyn ways, Undine confabulated herself. Undine is her new identity which she created when she bravely struck out on her own, as many of her race did before she moved “up from slavery.”
Of course since the play takes place in the present, this metaphor of identity and race improvement stretches to a wonderful and sardonic breadth and length that only Nottage can evoke with clever dialogue and allusions. It seems Undine at thirteen left home on scholarship and morphed herself by attending an Ivy League school. Transformed into a player, Undine internalized upper crust values and negotiated/networked with the upper classes to become an entrepreneur. She achieved success externally.
However, Undine has not done the work internally. And it is this which snares her in the Hervé trap and sets her on a downward momentum externally and inner enlightenment. As life/fate/consciousness would have it, this all begins when Undine comes to a pivot with a mild physical breakdown at the critical moment. The FBI agent tells her Undine shows up on no records; they cannot find out who Undine is. (The irony is wonderful.)
With us as her confidantes, Undine shepherds us through her story that evolves with flashback scenes. From hospital to moving out of her office, the scenes quickly pace as Undine steps from the realm of the fantastic Undine “fabulation” closer to the authenticity of self. Ironically, the fantastic follows her and apparently is an integral part of who she is. She seeks a Yoruba priest who tells her she must placate the spirits who are angry with her. To ameliorate their ire it will take a bottle of rum and the last of Undine’s money. The priest informs her there is something she must do to straighten out her life. Of course it is the last thing Undine wants to hear. As if that weren’t extraordinary enough, Undine’s journey takes her to additional and amazing adventures in the “real.”
Nottage shifts the dynamism alternating the action between Undine’s ironic story telling breaks to flashbacks of illustrative scenes relating her journey back to the fantastic real of Brooklyn. The director beautifully shepherds this ebb and flow and maintains the pace of comedy. We connect with Undine’s ironic comments and eagerly follow the rhythms of development in Undine’s “re-education” to discover who she is. For extreme fun, as fate and the spirits would have it, Undine is forced to confront every situation of Brooklyn street life she attempted to avoid when she ran away to her Ivy League education and “Undine” identity and lifestyle. Nottage’s sardonic situational humor is precious.
FABULATION, OR THE RE-EDUCATION OF UNDINE is just great for its comedy, complexity, questions about identity and culture, examination of issues about growth, and themes which all of us can take to heart. The superb ensemble who portray various roles in conveying Undine’s journey include Mayaa Boateng, Dashiell Eaves, Heather Alicia Simms, Ian Lassiter, Nikiya Mathis, J. Bernard Calloway, Marcus Callender.
The director deserves much credit with the actors for breathing life into this enjoyable and shimmering comedy. The staging is excellent, the pacing never drops the humor. Look for the little stereotypic bits which I dare not reveal for fear of spoiling the surprises.
Final kudos go to Adam Rigg (Scenic Design), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Design), Yi Zhao (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Cookie Jordan (Hair and Wig Design).
Clueless, The Musical is a “blast from the past.” The opening projections flash photographs of people we associate with the 1990s (Bill Clinton, the Baldwins, etc.). A voice-over and vocals by Cher (Dove Cameron), her maid and others sing the song (Beautiful Life) from Ace of Base’s The Sign. The sweet, gorgeous teenage Cher, sums up her privilege, happiness and the fun of her “Beautiful Life,” with enthusiasm and hopefulness. Heckerling wrote and directed the beloved film Clueless, the basis for this Off-Broadway musical presented by The New Group and directed by Kristin Hanggi. Heckerling also contributed with lyrics.
The production in its world premiere is splendid! Especially if you love the film Clueless, you must see Clueless, The Musical. Truly, the music, dancing and spot-on singing by the principals adds to the exuberance, excitement and energy of the original story and characters.
The film Clueless was a smash comedy hit which still stands today because of the superb acting, tight screenplay and Heckerling’s clever, tongue-in-cheek direction. At the time of the film we enjoyed ranking on the Beverly Hills lifestyles of the rich and not so famous kids. Gritty New Yorkers riffed about their asinine assumptions, expectations and privileged boorishness. Clueless’s protagonist Cher (Alicia Silverstone was wonderful in the part), is an airhead, but her saving grace is her loving, generous nature and her ability to admit fault and reform.
Sounds familiar? The plot is an update of Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility. Heckerling performed a yeowoman’s effort in morphing times and settings and nailing with humor and irony Austin’s characters and their romances. In her adaptation, the modern events she selects to illuminate the growth of the characters are grand. The same applies for the musical.
Taking her successful film Clueless and transposing it into a musical, using 1990s music hits and adapting the lyrics to sync with the characters and situations, may seem a risky venture. Why? Many of us are up to our eyeballs in presumptuous rich folks, whose sense of privilege is nauseating. However, those who know Clueless appreciate the arc of Cher’s development, her foibles, her ridiculousness and her sparkling intelligence. As a character ripe for development and shaping, Heckerling has crafted a modern teen with whom women can identify and like, and men can find appealing.
Furthermore, Cher’s goodness is the antithesis of the privileged, ungenerous social set currently in political power in this nation, you know, those who would put children in cages at the border. Cher probably would be working with Miss Geist to do fund raisers to collect donations for the ACLU to help asylum seekers. Indeed, in seeing the safer, purer time of the 1990s, Clueless, The Musical is a relief, especially since our eyes have been opened and we are reeling from Trumpism in a divided country. This production is just what we need to ESCAPE from the present turmoil and chaos, sit back and have some much deserved fun being entertained without thinking about anything politically earth-shattering.
The production jets us back in time when the culture was carefree, the economy was hopping and Bill Clinton was the light-hearted, saxophone-playing president on The Late Show. Newt Gingrich and Monica Lewinsky are nowhere in sight. The setting is a time before Y2K, the Dot.com meltdown and horrors of 9/11. A funny joke from the 1990s? “What is Forrest Gump’s password?” Answer: 1Forrest1.
From the outset Cher assures us in song that her situation is beautiful. We understand that though she is from the upper class, she has suffered the loss of her mom. Well, to liposuction. (This gets a laugh.) Continually, Cher tries to get her Dad (Chris Hoch portrays all the adult males in her life, including her DMV Instructor, and speech teacher Mr. Hall) to eat right so she won’t lose another parent. Also, part of the family is her X-step brother Josh (David Thomas Brown). During Cher’s song, we become acquainted with the important people in her life, her schoolmates, best friend Dionne (Zurin Villanueva), her Dad and Josh. We also meet the various school cliques and learn that Cher is a member of the cool, happening crowd.
If you love the film Clueless, you will enjoy Clueless, The Musical. Essentially, the scenes and conflicts are similar with the same funny characters: the vacant Tai (Ephie Aardema), the snooty Amber (Danielle Marie Gonzalez) who we despise because she is like THOSE folks who are arrogant, privileged and presumptuous. Travis (Will Connolly), Miss Geist (Megan Sikora), Elton (Brett Thiele) Mr. Hall (Chris Hoch), Christian (Justin Mortelliti) round out the cast. A word about the ensemble. They are fantastic. Dove Cameron’s voice, movement and portrayal of Cher shines with adorableness and ingenuousness.
Cher’s friends Dionne and Tai are deftly rendered by Zurin Villanueva and Ephie Aardema, both of whom have fine voices. Tai is the new girl who Cher and Dionne take under their wing. They give her pointers like keeping away from the “grassy knoll” where the stoners like Travis (whom Tai likes), hang out.
The situations rock on. And the events follow in sequence humorously like in the film. Some of these include Cher negotiating an upswing in her grades, the party scene when Tai becomes interested in Elton, Cher’s mugging in the parking lot, the school dance when Josh watches over Cher and Christian, and the hysterical scene when Dionne mistakenly ends up on the Freeway. There is even Cher’s Driving Test.
The Driving Test is a turning point. After Cher fails she is insulted by Tai. But then she has a moment of realization. She must stop being “clueless,” must work toward the social good and turn herself around to be less narcissistic. At the bottom of her attempting to be match maker for Tai, she eventually acknowledges she yearns to make her own match. Finally, her match-making “prowess” pays off. By the time the students celebrate the wedding of Mr. Hall and Ms Geist she’s caught someone. Thankfully, happy endings do occur.
Each of these events are heightened with the music the energetic dance numbers and Heckerling’s dialogue interspersed with the songs to elucidate the action and feelings of the characters. Many 1990s music groups are featured as well as solo artists: Jill Souble (“Supermodel”), Acqua (“Valley Girls”), Deee’Lite (“Groove is in The Heart”), Natalie Imbruglia (“Torn”), En Vogue (“My Lovin'”), Spin Doctors (“Little Miss Cant’ Be Wrong”), Joan Osbourne (“One of Us”), N’SYNC (“Bye, Bye, Bye”) and more. The dialogue overlaps with the songs as some are reprised.
One noted change which clearly is an update occurs as Heckerling deepens the character of Christian. Indeed, Christian confides in Cher about being gay. He intimates it in one song and then confirms it in another song and they become friends. Justin Mortelliti does a fine job with his acting, singing and dancing in these scenes. Likewise, the songs which infer Cher’s and Josh’s growing feelings for each other engage us. The music heightens the ebullient atmosphere. The dancing, vibrant costumes and complementary scenic design cohere to make Clueless, The Musical a delight.
Mention must be made to the following musicians in the orchestra: Matthew Smedal, Charles Santoro, Marc Malsegna, David Lina-Burg, Amanda Ruzza, Adam Wolfe. And Kudos to Kelly Devine for choreography, Beowulf Boritt for scenic design, Amy Clark for costume design, Jason Lyons for lighting design, Gareth Owen for sound design, Darrel Maloney for projection design and Matthew Smedal for music direction. Music supervision, arrangement and orchestration is by Ethan Popp.
Clueless, The Musical presented by The New Group runs with one intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. The production closes on 12 January 2019. You may pick up tickets at their website.
Playwright Will Eno’s one-man show Thom Pain (based on nothing) flies any way you like it. Surely, this depends upon that day’s audience’s intellect and responses. Indeed, one focus of the production entails the shared consciousness between Thom Pain and his listeners. Layered, multi-dimensional, this ethereal communication blossoms in the world created between the audience and Michael C. Hall as Thom. Reflecting upon this daunting effort comes a startling idea. This consciousness creation captivates beyond knowing every performance is different because it is live.
The portrayal of Thom Pain in the hands of Hall shepherded by Oliver Butler makes this production live theater on steroids. Hall’s very present performance magnifies each moment. The impact is powerful. Indeed, Hall’s Pain with subtle humor plows into the sardonic and tragic-comic furrows of our own humanity. He does this through contradictory impulses. On the one hand, as Thom he attempts to suppress his feelings and “manage them.” On the other hand he feels compelled to express/expurgate what makes him and all of us human: feelings of hurt. We understand the tense conflict between the compulsion to reveal and the desire to suppress. Daily, we accomplish this with friends, acquaintances, and ourselves, whether we admit it or not.
By extension these apparent contradictions in Thom create the tautness we feel when he pauses or pointedly addresses us by the royal “you.” Hence, we identify with his inner conflict to express and repress. Also, the tension helps to create immediacy. For Thom tells us whatever he wishes with urgent authenticity. And his suppressed pain guides his childhood revelations. Is he conscious of his suppressed pain? Certainly, it evidences in his demeanor, hesitations, attempts at humor, and need to talk to us.
Directed with a stark relevance and clever re-imagining, Oliver Butler spins out Eno’s irreverent, perplexing, Beckett-like piece. Thom’s ramblings move into places that settle on topics with uncertain happenstance, like the flight and landing of a wary sparrow. And then Eno, Hall, and Butler spiral the piece in a completely different direction. This is a superlative plot twist, as if a sparrow startled itself unexpectedly, then rapidly skedaddled.
Notably, Thom often redirects back to us. He puts us “on the line” for examination and a silent or vocal refrain as he confesses his observations about his life. At one point during this audience-participatory moment, an individual did respond orally when Hall’s Thom asked for a volunteer. The individual commented about a time he volunteered to go on stage during a Spalding Gray production. Hall responded as one would imagine Thom Pain as Hall would respond (not the other way around). The audience chortled and guffawed.
That exact moment with that particular audience and that gentleman remains the quintessential element of theater. It was classic, alive, and immediate. And it will never be duplicated, not even if all the same individuals returned to try to repeat it. Great theater should be about the unrecapturable, spontaneous life evoked by actors. That life spiritually refreshes. It’s priceless and breathtaking.
Likewise, Hall’s performance enlivens, refreshes, rejuvenates throughout. Ironically, the content, the playwright states, is based on “nothing.” So process rather than content activates the audience. But, sans the content conveyed by the consciousness between Hall and his audience, no “life” would be possible. Hall’s Thom and Eno’s words and Butler’s direction find their perfect union in receptive ready minds.
Such production artistry occurs when the key players open themselves to the universe. Whatever Hall’s Thom appears to seek from us at each moment carries us all to the next string of moments in the show. This immediacy, made possible through Hall’s many superlative talents, strikes humor and wariness into the audience’s hearts.
For his part when Hall ventures into the audience and/or asks for a volunteer, we turn on high alert. Hall’s relaxed graceful performance as Thom, never moves to result. He breathes with the rhythms of Eno’s Everyman clown stuck in a consciousness of others. Subsequently, his attempt at movement continually displaces him back to his key hurtful childhood incident. And it sends him to other highpoints in his life from which he attempts to make particular sense. Ironically, these efforts turn into a weird null. But he, Thom, Michael C. Hall so captivates, we stay with him curious about where he goes.
The ironic parenthetical in the title “based on nothing,” implies that Thom Pain’s musings before the audience lead no where and come from “not much,” in his perspective. Not so! The very profound themes of existence, consciousness, life purpose, memory caught up among the ordinary, off-handed remarks lead us to questioning joy. With the incredible acting instrument that Hall employs, we become enthralled from beginning when darkness engulfs the entire theater, to ending, when Hall asks the audience the ultimate question. And I of course in my mind as other audience members did made a choice. We answered or ruminated without answering or sat shocked or took on a myriad of audience mental responses to his question.
By the outburst of applause afterward, Eno, Hall and Butler hit their target. Strangely, I felt not only uplifted but cleansed of the last year and one half of angst-ridden and confounding “breaking news” stresses. What a pleasure to communicate mentally, silently with Hall as Thom Pain.
Any day, give me the existential crisis of attempting to make sense of the uncertainty of consciousness, of shifting memory, felt emotional loss, pain and the clown struggle of existence. At least my mind wasn’t being assaulted with the president’s narcissistic pronouncements in a time, place and space which daily confounds him and menaces a majority of the citizenry. After seeing Thom Pain, I am reminded to laugh. If our body politic is at a critical mass of mess, so? My answer to the last question of the play suffices with my laughter!
Hall’s performance will be up for nominations as will Butler’s direction, most probably. The actor’s sincerity and the moment to moment life he breathes through Eno’s words washes over one like a beautiful, clear river. Just wow!
Thom Pain (Based on Nothing) slides through your viewing appreciation without an intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center in NYC. The production has been extended through 9 December.