Back From the Beach

Two summer offerings lure us from shore to show.

Spunk, through July 30 at Karamu House's Jelliffe Theatre, 2355 East 89th Street. 216-795-7070.

Love's Labour's Lost, presented in repertory by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival at the Shaker Heights Community Colonnade, 3450 Lee Road. 216-732-3311. It ends July 8.

Those who keep up with TV commercials will recall that, when one bites into a York Peppermint Patty, one is supposed to go into a state of suspended bliss: Eyes pop like vintage Don Knotts, reality stops, and ecstasy consumes the senses.

However, candy is murder on the hips and rots the teeth; the ecstasy it gives can only be measured in microseconds. Two local productions, however, have the same sweet tangy flavor, but with far longer-lasting pleasures. Spunk, at Karamu's Jelliffe Theatre, and Love's Labour's Lost, at the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, exalt in the pleasures of rich idiosyncratic language and romantic combustion. They're tempting enough to entice the laziest summer hedonists from the beach back into the theater.

Spunk, which is zestfully closing the Karamu season, is a Mardi Gras-like dramatization of three short stories by Zora Neale Hurston. Like the orchid Billie Holiday used to wear in her hair, this 10-year-old play by George C. Wolfe beautifully enhances the theater.

Hurston was a Depression-era regionalist noted for her ear for local dialect. Her fables were a precursor of the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and August Wilson. They are a black woman's take on the same social racial nuances that concerned Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Wolfe's adaptation calls upon masks, puppets, and Delta blues to capture Hurston's sense of the phantasmagorical. He makes sure that every moonshine drop of Hurston's language permeates.

Director/choreographer Reggie Kelly has been nurturing various productions of this play for a decade. Watching the assured way he brings these mini-dramas to life is much like viewing a gardener coaxing wildflowers from the barren earth.

If there is a subject that unites the three stories of this play, it is how men and women feed off each other for sustenance. The first tale, "Sweat," fills the theater with an Old Testament fierceness. It concerns a drained washerwoman, locked in a primeval struggle with her abusive husband, who is trying to steal the fruits of her labor to bestow on his painted tart of a paramour. (It takes a serpent out of Eden to set things right.)

"The Gilded Six Bits" is about an adoring husband and wife, torn adrift from their paradise when the beautiful young wife is tempted to infidelity by a city slicker's false promises of gold.

In between the two rural fables is "Story in Harlem Slang," a tale of country people gone wrong in the big city. It is an arresting cross between the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. A young man from the country becomes a jive-talking zoot-suited pimp, determined to lead the high life by mooching off sweet-faced young women who work as maids. A sharp reversal of fortune results in the innocent Little Red Riding Hood of a servant girl gnawing on the wolf. With rainbow sass and delirious slang, the stage takes on the exquisite lunacy of a vintage cartoon.

The production is invigoratingly rough and ramshackle. It elicits the Hollywood ambience of '40s all-black musicals, filled with godly fervor and infectious joy. Tackling various roles, Cornell Calhoun and Kelvin Willingham, in elegant tuxes, leap from scene to scene with athletic prowess. In three different roles, newcomer Terri Singleton bubbles with unfettered animal spirits; filling the air with sheer electricity, she moves with the startlingly slinky suppleness of the great dancer Katherine Dunham.

When S.J. Hannah, in a maneuver worthy of Gene Kelly, glides across the stage on all fours, every jaw in the house simultaneously drops in awe. As a wronged husband, he has the implacable innocence of a Christian about to be tossed to the lions. In frayed flapper togs, Joyce M. Meadows, who plays a multitude of roles, musters a pasty, disturbing decadence that imbues the show with a supernatural aura. Dennis Chandler, as Guitar Man, sings old-style songs in a voice that seems to issue from a haunted graveyard.

Director Kelly gives us an evening that's as revivifying as an old-fashioned riverside baptism and as tasty as a peppermint patty.

In years past, we would attend the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival's free performances because, like lectures on ecology and nature walks, we thought it would be good for our artistic soul. If we often packed up our lawn chair, while smiling benevolently and chanting the mantra "You get what you pay for" under our breath, at least there was solace in the penny saved. This year that mantra has changed to "The best things in life are free." Directors Eric Schmiedl and Larry Nehring have walked on water and changed it into wine. They've tamed Love's Labour's Lost, the most problematic of Shakespeare's comedies. This is a work that has defeated everyone, from desperate literature professors to Kenneth Branagh, due to its archaic wordplay. Through sleight of hand, with sets and props no more extensive than sunglasses and scarves, Schmiedl and Nehring have pared it down to 90 minutes of pure enchantment.

In the confines of a civic center -- indoors or out, depending on the weather -- six performers (the future of Cleveland theater) bring illumination to their surroundings. Like sunrays through a stained-glass window, they restore life and color to Master Will's meditations on the vagaries of courtship, reaffirming our belief in the possibilities of wonder. To express our heartfelt gratitude, we place a plethora of pansies at the feet of Nehring, who also performs, and Tony Petrello, David Ellis, Mike Roache, Margi Herwald, and Aimee Zannoni.

Why take a bus or train to Stratford, when happiness lies right here in our own back yard?

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