Spunk showcases the best of Penumbra

The theater company returns after a year-long hiatus with a fast-paced, touching musical trio

After nearly a year off local stages — its last production was Amen Corner at the Guthrie last spring — the Penumbra Theatre Company makes a welcome return with Spunk, George C. Wolfe's musical adaptation of a trio of stories by Zora Neale Hurston.

It was clear opening night that the audience wasn't just pleased to be back at the Kent Street theater but eager to engage with the show. The energy in the house was palpable from the opening musical moments, and it helped elevate an already talented sextet of actors to greater heights.

The three Hurston stories examine African-American life during the early years of the 20th century.

Austene Van and Keith Downing play two separate couples enduring rocky marriages
Rich Ryan
Austene Van and Keith Downing play two separate couples enduring rocky marriages

Details

Spunk
Penumbra Theatre
270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
651.224.3180; through April 7

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Director Patdro Harris assembles a remarkable cast, led by Jevetta Steele and Dennis W. Spears, who take on the roles of the main storytellers, Blues Speak Woman and Guitar Man, in the music-fueled show. The bluesy score, crafted by Chic Street Man (with music direction by Carlton Leake), allows the two to showcase their considerable musical gifts while propelling each of the stories along.

The music underscores the thematic links. The blues are used as a musical backdrop, while the stories are mainly about men and women looking for, and sometimes falling in, love.

The material can be played for laughs, such as in the middle sequence. In "Story in Harlem Slang," two pimps (which, in this context, means men who trade loving for money) battle for the affection of a single woman, who they hope will at least provide a hot meal, some liquor, and money. The pair, played by Mikell Sapp and T. Mychael Rambo, strut like peacocks. They look like them a bit as well, decked out in colorful zoot suits and matching fedoras (expertly crafted by Amanda McGee). The two lay it on thick at every turn, jostling with each other even as they fail miserably on the job. From their exaggerated motions (they look ready to rip their pockets out when rattling nonexistent change) to bold words, the actors relish every moment as the characters.

The bookend pieces are the real heavy-hitting material here. Each one looks at marriages on the rocks but with completely different vibes and outcomes. In both, the couple is played by Austene Van and Keith Jamal Downing.

In "Sweat," Van plays Delia, a hard-working washerwoman married to the no-good Sykes. He's a nasty piece of work, abusing his wife at every turn while running around town with another woman. Van brings out the strength that lies at the core of Delia, who endures all manner of terrors at the hands of her husband — before finally finding peace through Syke's own actions.

The later story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," offers a more involved take. In this case, Van's character is at fault, but the story stretches in a different direction as the two slowly work through the tough times to find joy on the other side.

Here, the young married pair, Missie and Joe, are in the throes of love until another man, played by Rambo, comes between them. Joe is not Sykes, however. There's isn't violence. Instead, it becomes months of silence and distance between the two, before a thaw finally occurs to bring the pair back together. The two actors do remarkable work here. In the span of little more than half an hour, they don't just create depth, they craft characters you want to spend more time with, and who you are rooting for by the story's end. Rambo is also very good as the slick — no, slimy — visitor who threatens their love.

Fast-paced, funny, and touching, Spunk showcases much of what Penumbra does so well. It is musical to the core, even when the characters aren't singing. It delves deep into the African-American experience and provides a showcase for immensely talented performers in an intimate setting. We can only hope that the financial crisis that has hamstrung the company over the past few years can be put behind it, and the theater can get back to the business of theater.

 
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