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“It’s been a hard year,” said Penumbra Theatre founder Lou Bellamy as he thanked the well-heeled crowd of stalwart supporters and theater fans who turned out for the opening night of “Spunk”  last Thursday. The play they all came to see is a blues-soaked adaptation of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Three Tales” by George C. Wolfe. It’s also Penumbra’s first production since the Knight Arts grantee announced serious budget troubles and subsequent show cancellations last spring. But after months of uncertainty about the company’s future – painful layoffs, intense fundraising and financial restructuring – with “Spunk,” Penumbra has come back with verve and real style.

Hurston’s ear for vernacular and character, her dry wit and trenchant insights into love lost and gained give this gritty, humane play about the day-to-day lives of African Americans at the turn of the 20th century a timeless relevance, despite the historic setting. And carried along on the steady backbeat of Chic Street Man’s richly evocative score, you’re tapping your toes in no time once the lights go up.

Austene Van and T. Mychael Rambo. Photo by Rich Ryan, courtesy of Penumbra Theatre.

Austene Van and T. Mychael Rambo. Photo by Rich Ryan, courtesy of Penumbra Theatre

Indeed, it’s worth seeing “Spunk” for the music alone: the marvelous Jevetta Steele and Dennis Spears (“I Wish You Love”) offer narration throughout “in the key of blues” with a wink and incomparable style. Austene Van and Keith Jamal Downing, T. Mychael Rambo and Mikell Sapp round out the cast, switching from pathos to humor convincingly as their characters change with each tale. The stories offer a window into daily hurts and triumphs: a marriage gone sour, marred by abuse; slick-talking, Zoot-suited gigolos who meet their match in a dame too smart to be a mark; new love tested by intimate betrayal and envy, seasoned by forgiveness.

In the hands of director Patdro Harris, musical director Carlton Leake and this hugely talented cast of actor/singers, “Spunk,” more than lives up to its name. It’s a fitting celebration of return to form for this nationally renowned theater company.

SPUNK,” adapted by George C. Wolfe from “Three Tales” by Zora Neale Hurston and directed by Patdro Harris, runs  from March 14 through April 14* at Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul. Find ticket details and more upcoming event information on the company’s website: www.penumbratheatre.org

*On March 25, Penumbra announced an expanded run, with an additional seven performances, due to popular demand.

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