Gettin’ to the git in Cal Shakes’ glorious Spunk

Jul 14

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The cast of Spunk at Cal Shakes shakes it up. Below: Omozé Idehenre and Aldo Billingslea in the final story of the trilogy, “The Gilded Six Bits.” Photos by www.kevinberne.com

Zora Neale Hurston writes with zest and zeal. She can move from joy to anguish in a second and still find her way back to hope. All of this is readily apparent in California Shakespeare Company’s production of Spunk at the Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. Sharp and spirited and brimming with talent, these three Hurston stories, adapted for the stage by George C. Wolfe, are poetry and drama, blues and jubilation and as much stirring music as you’re likely to hear in 90 minutes in the foggy Orinda Hills.

Wolfe honors Hurston by making sure the audience knows these are short stories – not plays – being brought to life so that we, as a group, can appreciate Hurston’s rich, beautiful and musical language. Each of the three stories includes narration of some kind, so the evening never strays from its literary roots. But this is no storytime theater. This is theater that moves. And sings. Boy, does it sing.

Before the show even begins, musician Tru warms up the audience with a call-and-response song to “stir up some ancestors.” What starts as sort of a lark, ends up being surprisingly beautiful. There are pockets of such delightful surprises all through this sharply executed production directed by Patricia McGregor in her Cal Shakes debut.

The cast of six, expertly accompanied by Tru on guitar (mostly), does a lot of singing, but the golden voice of the bunch belongs to Dawn L. Troupe as Blues Speak Woman. Whether she’s singing the narration and vocal punctuation to a story of abuse and eventual triumph (the original score is by Chic Street Man)or singing an up tempo version of “Unforgettable,” Troupe is the shine on this production, and Tru is its pulse.

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Though we’re aware that we’re being told stories, director McGregor allows these tales to move as much as they sing. Thanks to choreographer Paloma McGregor (the director’s sister), there’s never a static moment. There are full-on musical numbers, but there’s also poetry of movement going on, especially in the middle chapter, “Story in Harlem Slang,” where two zoot-suited hustlers, playing the cool game and desperate to hit up ladies with cash so they can get a hot meal, try to come across as the hippest things in Harlem. They strike poses – early voguing, no doubt – and many of them involve bodies at a diagonal. Outfitted in dazzlingly bright suits (costumes by Callie Floor), L. Peter Callender, Aldo Billingslea and Tyee Tilghman are all angles and slants in jazzy colors. Their speech is nothing short of Shakespearean in its colorful way with words, and while their hustle is masterfully deflated by Omozé Idehenre, their “dance of the desperate pimps” makes for dazzling entertainment.

In the opening story, “Sweat,” Margo Hall is Delia, a hardworking, God-loving woman with a snake for a husband. Callender gleefully plays the devilish Sykes (such a Dickensian name for evil), though his violence is far from cartoonish. With fanciful touches, like a puppet horse and a puppet old coot on a porch, this story goes to some dark places – it’s practically biblical in its use of serpents – and emerges in something like the light of triumph.

The same is true for the final chapter, “The Gilded Six Bits,” in which the ever-charming Billingslea and a powerful Idehenre play a blissfully wed young couple that hits a gold-covered rough patch in their marriage. There’s a lot of room in this story for melodrama, but Hurston seems more interested in complicated human emotions and lets time and true love take their course.

Everything about this production, from the set by Michael Locher, which looks like a down-home art installation, to York Kennedy’s lights, which only add to the colorful glow of the stories, is pitch perfect. The lights come up after 90 minutes and you’re just not ready to leave Hurston’s world. When I saw the show Friday night, the audience didn’t have to leave – they were invited on stage to learn dance moves from the Harlem Renaissance and to revel in a dance party. The stage was crowded with dancers, proving that Spunk, when delivered in just the right way, is contagious. And irresistible.

[bonus interviews]
I interviewed Spunk director Patricia McGregor and choreographer Paloma McGregor for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Spunk continues through July 29 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

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