Drew Drake and Ines Nassara, with Jonathan Mosley-Perry on guitar and Iyona Blake in the background, in Signature Theatre’s “Spunk.” (Christopher Mueller)
Theater critic

Larger-than-life stories can look gaudy on a small stage, but director Timothy Douglas smartly frames the tall tales of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk” in Signature Theatre’s intimate Ark space. In the comic middle piece of the show’s three blues-driven fables, a pair of peacocking zoot-suiters move like cartoons, stretching into exaggerated postures as they boast about their prowess and slice each other with insults. It’s too much, you think. But it’s not. The language they’re living up to is huge.

“Spunk” emerged in 1989 as Hurston (“Their Eyes Were Watching God”) was being rediscovered for her admired yet sometimes controversial depictions of early-20th-century black American life; she died forgotten in 1960. George C. Wolfe’s adaptation layers in music by Chic Street Man, played in Douglas’s production by Jonathan Mosley-Perry on acoustic guitar. The moody underscoring drives vocal embellishments from the five singer-actors, especially Iyona Blake as the figure known as Blues Speak Woman.

Blake is a glorious vocalist who draws out phrases like . . . you want to insert a flamboyant, Hurston-like phrase here, because the show is so full of her vivid descriptions. Wolfe leaves some of the narration in, and Douglas’s actors are at ease with the art of telling the story while also being in it.

You’re immersed in the technique with the first tale, “Sweat,” about a hard-working washerwoman (Ines Nassara) and her abusive husband (Ken­Yatta Rogers). The husband is so mean he brings a snake into the house to intimidate her; actors shake rattles as Rogers glowers and stamps through the story.


Iyona Blake in “Spunk,” at Signature Theatre. (Christopher Mueller)

Nassara has a grounded, ­matter-of-fact presence that makes her affecting, whether she’s trying to stand up to her man as the washerwoman, talking back to the zoot-suiters in “Story in Harlem Slang” or torn by guilt in the last piece, “The Gilded Six-Bits.” Drew Drake helps deepen the mood in that final story as a double-crossed husband; Marty Austin Lamar, on the other hand, preens gloriously alongside Rogers as they play the competing rakes.

In such close quarters you notice all the details Douglas lavishes on the script — the changeable tones of Sherrice Mojgani’s lights and touches on Kendra Rai’s costumes that range from a bejeweled headband to the flashy extra pattern on the Harlem slang slingers’ suits. The style is florid, and it works because it takes Hurston seriously. All of it, especially the acting, has heart.

Spunk, by Zora Neale Hurston, adapted by George C. Wolfe, music by Chic Street Man. Directed by Timothy Douglas. Music direction, Mark G. Meadows; choreography, Dane Figueroa Edidi; scenic design, Luciana Stecconi; sound, Ryan Hickey. About one hour and 45 minutes. Through June 23 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $40-$85, subject to change. 703-820-9771 or sigtheatre.org.