Spunk at Penumbra Theatre

March 14, 2013
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Austene Van and T. Mychael Rambo in Spunk.  Photo by Rich Ryan.

Austene Van and T. Mychael Rambo in Spunk. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Review written by Janet Preus and John Olive.

Penumbra Theatre came charging back to life last night with a production of Spunk, an adaptation of three stories by the great Zora Neale Hurston, written for the stage by George C, Wolfe, with music provided by Chic Street Man.  Penumbra’s iteration of Spunk is directed and choreographed by Patdro Harris with music direction by Carlton Leake.  It stars veteran actors Jevetta Steele, Dennis W. Spears, T. Mychael Rambo and Austene Van with outstanding work by (relative) newcomers Keith Jamal Downing and Mikell Sapp.  Spunk plays at Penumbra’s St. Paul Theatre through April 7.

HowWasTheShow.com’s insightful theater reviewers Janet Preus and John Olive attended Spunk‘s glittery opening, then repaired to Muddy Pig to engage in a pithy discussion of the play’s merits:

John Olive: What a grand pleasure to have Penumbra back in business after a hiatus of what, six months?  Nine months?  Penumbra is Minnesota’s premiere examiner of the African-American experience, the premiere producer of the work of August Wilson.

Janet Preus: They’ve had to do some painful staff-cutting.

JO: Yes, and in particular I miss gifted playwright slash director Dominic Taylor.  I hope they can bring him back as he provided real substance.  As far as I know, no plays have been announced beyond Spunk.  Still, they’re back.  Reason to celebrate.

JP: Spunk works.  Smart, satisfying.  A blend of first rate acting, seamlessly integrated music, design and storytelling.  The director [Patdro Harris] and the designers did outstanding work, especially on Penumbra’s tiny stage.

JO: For me, the third story is the best.  Characters are beautifully developed.  The husband behaves in completely unexpected ways.  It’s a story about forgiveness, a theme I always find appealing.

JP: But the first two have their own appeal.  Years ago, I read the snake story [the first playlet] and Spunk renders it perfectly.  They husband is the personification of evil (it would be a snake).  His wife represents ever-suffering dignity.  The second playlet, about the zoot-suited hipsters in Harlem provides sweet comedy.  Hurston is a born storyteller.

JO: Too bad she achieved so little success during her lifetime.  Let’s do some quoting: “You done killed my insides.”

JP: “I must be Jelly, ’cause jam don’t shake.

JO: “The sun is the hero of every day.”

JP: “I’m like the cemetery.  I ain’t puttin’ out; I’m takin’ in.”

JO: We better stop.  Spunk features the work of four Twin City luminaries: Van, Spears, Steele, Rambo.  Here’s a unique op to see these fabulous artists working together.  And this is in no way a diminishment of the excellent work of Downing.  He was scary as the nasty husband, moving as the forgiving and loving Joe.

JP: And Mikell Sapp!  His youth and squeaky awkwardness made him perfect as the penniless Jelly.  He gives one of the funniest performances you’re likely to see anywhere.  Bravo.

I need to praise in particular the work of designer Amanda McGee.  Her costumes are exactly tight – over-the-top.

JO: I think it’s fair to say that we recommend Spunk.

JP: We do indeed.

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