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Same Playwright, Two Very Different Plays
BAY CITIZEN

March 23, 2011

Both Berkeley Rep and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre take on the work of Lynn Nottage — with drastically different results

It’s hard to imagine how “Ruined,” a fierce and arresting drama concerning the rape and mutilation of women in war-torn Congo, could possibly share the same authorship as “Fabulation, or the Re-education of Undine” a plucky yet slight social comedy about African-American identity set in contemporary New York City.

That Lynn Nottage is responsible for both plays demonstrates just how broad an artist’s range can be – and how variable her talent.

The productions of “Ruined” (2008) and “Fabulation” (2004) currently underway at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, respectively, exist in contrasting theatrical realms, which makes comparison tricky.

The Berkeley Rep’s high-budget production is part of a national collaboration with two other prominent regional theatre companies – La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California and Boston’s Huntington Theatre. Most of the cast members boast Broadway and Off-Broadway credits. The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s staging at the Fort Mason Center’s snug Southside Theatre draws on actors with predominantly local resumés.

Putting the difference in production scale aside, however, the artistic achievement that distinguishes “Ruined” from “Fabulation” is like the gulf that separates a master from an apprentice. It’s easy to see why “Ruined” won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Drama while “Fabulation” made do with a few Obies.

Unlike the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s presentation of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” last year, “Ruined” is the rare kind of drama that rips its subject matter from the news headlines without resorting to the bludgeoning polemical diatribe about social injustice that so often hampers “Important Political Plays.”

The story is set a Congolese brothel run by Mama Nadi, a tough entrepreneur with a big personality. While brawling factions fight each other outside the brothel door, Mama Nadi provides her staff and clients with the closest thing that the country has to a safe haven. Militiamen surrender their bullets on the threshold, music plays and cold beers flow.

But when a merchant turns up at Mama Nadi’s with two exhausted and frightened young women in tow, the bitter conflict that she has so successfully kept at bay begins to threaten the sanctity of her unorthodox sanctuary. Mama Nadi’s belief that “there must always be a part of you that this war can’t touch” is stretched beyond breaking point.

Nottage never unwinds the tension. A spirit of menace pervades every scene, offsetting the author’s vivid and sympathetic characterizations of the core female characters.

There is a bittersweet side to all of the dramatist’s portraits. Mama Nadi is a hard-nosed businesswoman. But her sense of kinship with the bruised women who live under her roof runs deep. The young brothel worker Sophie may have been raped with a bayonet before arriving at Mama Nadi’s. She is in so much pain that she can barely walk. Being useless (or “ruined”) as a sex worker, Sophie sings and does housework to earn her keep. Yet she’s not above stealing cash from her boss.

The production plays up the bold contrasts in Nottage’s dramaturgy. The stage looks like a Tiki bar with its festive blend of shabby wooden decor and riotous lights. But the layers of compressed trash that underlay the floorboards remind us of the festering wound beneath the fun. In one of the most shocking scenes, director Liesl Tommy skillfully manages to combine a hedonistic party atmosphere with the physical abuse of a young prostitute (Salima, played with sensitivity by Pascale Armand) in full public view. The poignant sweetness of Carla Duren’s singing in the role of Sophie during this scene as she looks helplessly on, has a mirror opposite in the business-minded indifference of Tonye Patano’s Mama Nadi.

Running at two and a half hours in the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s version (although advertised at 120 minutes) “Fabulation” is about the same length as “Ruined.” But the work feels longer.

The play follows the misfortunes of Undine Barnes Calles, a Manhattan public relations executive. Over the course of the comedy, we watch the protagonist suffer a cataclysmic array of misfortunes that force her to embrace her roots as an African-American woman from a blue-collar Brooklyn background.

The tidy moral tale follows a predictable course with only glimmers of wit to keep us engaged. The most pithy lines occur in the scene in which Undine, a stock character conceived in the mould of Miranda Priestly, the beastly fashion magazine editor in “The Devil Wears Prada,” orders an underling to find a celebrity for an event. “I need someone up and coming, young, hip,” she says. “Gangsterish enough to cause a stir, but not enough to cause a problem.”

Helmed by Ellen Sebastian Chang and starring Margo Hall as Undine, the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre’s entertaining but uneven production makes the best of Nottage’s hackneyed social commentary. The tight-knit supporting cast bolsters the writing with physical comedy: Daveed Diggs brings out his inner spoken word artist as Undine’s brother to hilarious and touching effect. And in one scene, Halili Knox reveals a businesswoman’s snooty side by blowing air kisses.

But minor yet persistent issues such as Hall’s frequent fluffed lines and clunky scene changes amplify weak points of the dramaturgy.

To her credit, Nottage has writtenother remarkable plays. “Intimate Apparel” and “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” have deservedly become standard repertory around the country.

Once an artist develops a strong track record, it makes sense to view their work as a whole. We should embrace their experiments even if they aren’t always successful. After all, one less-than-fabulous theatrical experiment isn’t enough to consider a reputation ruined.

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