BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… Spunk

BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… Spunk
Ines Nassara and Iyona Blake in Spunk.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

I've never been disappointed by a show at Signature Theatre. Even their ongoing Grand Hotel, which is working with some less-than-stellar source material, is elevated by the wonderful craftsmanship and talented artists this theater welcomes. The same can unfortunately not be said of the disappointing Spunk, which opened in Signature's more intimate ARK theater on Friday. Zora Neale Hurston's masterful prose falls flat in a production that feels like it opened too soon, resulting in an evening lacking in the gumption this show tries to champion.

Three Hurston stories fill Spunk's hour-and-forty-minute run-time: Sweat, Story in Harlem Slang and The Gilded Six-Bits. They're all compelling stories propelled along by the Blues Speak Woman (Iyona Blake) and the Guitar Man (Jonathan Mosley-Perry) who fill the evening with some engaging, if forgettable, blues tunes. In Sweat, the marriage between Delia (Ines Nassara) and her abusive husband Sykes (KenYatta Rogers) crumbles when his jealousy of Delia's growing independence leads to his own downfall. Throughout Story in Harlem Slang, the pimp Jelly (Marty Austin Lamar) looks for ways to get a hot meal through some skillful sweet talking. The evening concludes with The Gilded Six-Bits, the most interesting of the three stories, which follows the conflict that arises in the marriage of Missie May (Ines Nassara) and Joe (Drew Drake) after a mysterious outsider comes into their lives. Each of the tales is strung together through a common theme of the spunk needed to overcome life's hardships.

BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… Spunk
Ines Nassara in Spunk.
Photo by ChristopherMueller.

George C. Wolfe, whose Jelly's Last Jam had a great run at Signature in 2016, has crafted a strong adaptation that retains much of Hurston's original prose. There are a lot of disjointed pieces in the production, however, that prevent this work from reaching its true potential. Timothy Douglas, directing for the first time at Signature Theatre, leaves his actors with a lot of unclear direction. Oftentimes, the performers would go around the small playing space, designed by Luciana Stecconi, only to wind up in the exact same place they began. These kinds of unmotivated actions suck the conflict out of the action on stage. It's a little surprising to see such a lack of focus from Mr. Douglas, whose previous DC productions like Gem of the Ocean or Nina Simone: Four Women, have been engrossing feats.

Although Chic Street Man's music is not the focus of Spunk, it is one of the most engaging parts of the evening thanks to consistently strong execution by Mr. Mosley-Perry. With just a single guitar, he can fill the entirety of the ARK while just lightly plucking a few strings. It's great to listen to such skillful playing, but occasionally the music would overpower the unamplified performers and there would be words lost or muffled by the blues tunes. This thankfully doesn't cause any confusion in following the plot, but it was sad to miss out on some of Hurston's finely crafted words.

BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… Spunk
Marty Austin Lamar in Spunk.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Where craftsmanship disappoints, however, is in the costume design by Kendra Rai. By and large, the costuming is dutiful to the stories being told but several issues began to demand my focus during Friday's performance. Three zoot suits became the primary costumes of Story in Harlem Slang with the oversized jackets being accentuated with traditional tribal patterns. It's a great idea on paper but comes off cheap in practice, as the patterned portions of each suit looked like pieces of a quilt just thrown onto the clothing rather than an organic continuation of the suit itself. Not to mention that one of the suits was ill-fitted and looked incomplete. Perhaps this was intentional, and the intent was lost in the shuffle from page to stage. Nevertheless, it was surprising to see Ms. Blake come out in shoes two sizes too big during the final story. All in all, the costuming felt only about two-thirds complete, as if there had not been enough time to bring all ideas to fruition.

Two impressive aspects of this production, one technical and one performative, help prevent Spunk from being a lost cause. As the Blues Speak Woman, Iyona Blake injects energy into every moment she opened her mouth. Not only did her musical moments excite, but she was the most eminently engaging person onstage. Even while sitting on the sidelines and observing the actions of the protagonists, I constantly found my eyes drifting back to Ms. Blake. She simply demanded your attention even while doing nothing.

BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… Spunk
Drew Drake, Jonathan Mosley-Perry,
Iyona Blake and Ines Nassara in Spunk.
Photo by Christopher Mueller.

When discussing the technical aspects of Spunk, Sherrice Mojgani's lighting design stood head and shoulders above all other elements. Not only did the intensity and the hues help to highlight the action onstage, but extra care was placed to make every part of the design interesting. Whether an interesting shift that helped to bring action from one side of the space to the next or a unique design created by the lights, there was always something new and engaging to appreciate. I've never recommended a show based on its lighting design, but there's a first for everything.

Spunk is still an enjoyable evening at the theater, thanks in large part to some brilliant source material. There's always a sense of disappointment, however, when great words don't leap off the page to become a more perfect version of what they can be. It's ironic that a play all about courage, guts and spunk seems to lack the necessary backbone to justify its own decisions.

Spunk runs approximately one hour and forty minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission and plays through June 23 at Signature Theatre. For tickets and information, click here.



BWW Review: Signature Theatre's SPUNK Lacks, Well… SpunkSam Abney is a Washington, D.C. based arts professional. A native of Arizona, he has happily made D.C. his new home. Sam is a graduate from George Mason University with a degree in Communication and currently works for Arena Stage as a member of their Development team. He is a life-long lover of theater and is excited about sharing his passion with as many people as possible.

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