Lawrence Toppman

On Q’s ‘Spunk’ has just that, and some sass besides

If you knew Zora Neale Hurston only from her great novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” you might think of her as a sophisticated and poetic writer. (Is there a better opening sentence than “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board”?)

Her short stories, collected for the first time 35 years after she died in 1960, show an earthier, more elemental side. Three have been linked in “Spunk,” the anthology play that opens On Q Performing Arts’ seventh season at Duke Energy Theater. (She did write a story titled “Spunk,” but it’s not one of these.)

Adapter George C. Wolfe connects the trio with two running characters, Blues Woman (Shar Marlin) and Guitar Man (Gabriel Jules), a kind of Greek chorus who sing and speak and comment on action. The whole show breaks conventions: Characters suddenly step forward to address us as narrators, occasionally wear masks – a device that doesn’t work, as it’s not carried through – and talk to a life-sized puppet.

Director Jermaine Nakia Lee heightens effects by allowing actors to be just a bit larger than life, as suits the material. Hurston wrote these as fables: When we see Sykes (Omar El-Amin) tote a box holding a rattlesnake into his kitchen, where he’s as likely to be killed as his terrified wife (Nicole Watts), we smile at the unlikelihood of it.

All three stories pair these two actors one way or another. (They’re billed simply as “The Folk” in the program, along with London Lee and Quentin Talley.)

In “Sweat,” Sykes tries to drive his wife from the home she paid for, so he can occupy it with a kept woman. In “Story in Harlem Slang,” Watts plays a wise gal who fends off not only effete gigolo Jelly (El-Amin) but his equally egotistic rival, Sweet Back (Talley). (The printed story comes with a four-page glossary of unfamiliar terms; you won’t need that here.)

And in the most emotional of the tales, the one presented by itself after intermission, a forgiving husband (El-Amin) proves that “The Gilded Six-Bits” that caused his wife (Watts) to stray cannot wreck their marriage.

Wolfe has been smart enough to take a lot of the funniest lines and touching episodes straight from the texts. I’m not sure exactly what this comment about Sykes means, but there’s something right about it: “He ain’t fit tuh carry guts tuh a bear.”

Chic Street Man underlines but doesn’t overwhelm scenes with piano music, though he occasionally hampered Marlin’s vocals Friday. The whole show has an appealingly relaxed feel, as if Lee – and Wolfe and maybe even Hurston – want us to slip into multiple moods without taking what we see too literally.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Spunk’

When: Through Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St.

Running time: 115 minutes.

Tickets: $28.

Details: 704-372-1000; www.blumenthalarts.org.

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