The second show of CalShakes' four-play season is often the most adventurous, typically being one of the two non-Shakespeare productions that this always creative company puts on each summer. And the latest, Spunk, is no exception. It's a twenty-three-year-old play that was originally developed at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and later produced by the Public Theater in New York, and by Berkeley Rep in 1991. It was originally adapted and directed by George C. Wolfe, and CalShakes artistic director Jonathan Moscone says it "thrilled" him when he first saw it in 1989 and that it "felt like a classic while at the same time forging new and adventurous terrain in the theatrical landscape." It's an adaptation of three stories by the great Zora Neale Hurston, who rose to prominence as a fiction writer during the Harlem Renaissance, and in many ways the play operates as a piece of cultural anthropology as well as a piece of art.

What's terrific about this production, and as we imagine what was terrific about the original, is the way music, poetry, and dance are woven throughout — though in this case some of the music was trimmed, bringing it in at a quick 90 minutes without an intermission. Hurston's tales of the African-American experience in the early Twentieth Century are powerful, poignant, and sad, but the music elevates them and gives them a mythic, transcendent air. These are three stories about living in poverty that are rich with theatrical magic, not to mention beautiful prose.

The first tale, "Sweat," is a proto-feminist fable about a washer woman named Delia (played by forceful and talented local actress Margo Hall) living in Florida with a man named Sykes (CalShakes associate artist L. Peter Callender) who does not love her. Sykes lives off of her income, but brazenly courts another woman in town in front of her face while Delia works to support them. It's a story about domestic abuse, fear at the hands of a man, and introduces us both to Hurston's verbal rhythms and one of her favorite themes: the burden put on poor African-American women by the good-for-nothing men in their lives (something Alice Walker, a huge fan of Hurston's after discovering her in the 70s, would explore in The Color Purple).

Throughout this and all the stories, a singing woman (Dawn L. Troupe) in a magenta dress helps narrate, generally by talk-singing, the story while other performers play various roles and move scenery on and off stage. A single guitar player accompanies her, and the audience is encouraged to make little egg-shakers out in the courtyard before the show to help add percussion. It's experimental theater, with very little in terms of set (though designer Michael Locher's backdrop is beautiful and well utilized), and it's the kind of thing CalShakes does brilliantly, though not often with such modern material.

The second tale, "Story in Harlem Slang," explores the good-for-nothing male theme from a lighter angle, depicting two "pimps" interacting on the streets of Harlem using much of the popular slang of the Renaissance time — "pimp" in this case referring to what were essentially male prostitutes who strutted and courted women, especially gainfully employed domestics, essentially to get free drinks, food, and pocket change in exchange for sex.

And the third story, "The Gilded Six-Bits," is the heart-breaker, telling the tale of a couple very much in love, Missie May (the vibrant and always wonderful to watch Omozé Idehenre, who's a core member of the company at A.C.T.) and Joe (Aldo Billingslea), who are almost destroyed by greed and adultery. It's probably the highlight of this tight trio of stories, if only because it's the most emotionally complex and moving, and because the performaces of Idehenre and Billingslea are both tender and real.

The direction by Patricia McGregor and the performances are tight and near flawless throughout, and given all music, movement, and character-switches throughout, that is saying a lot. It's a great thing to see, and on the evening we were there, the play ended with an on-stage dance lesson for audience members by Oakland-based dance historian Traci Bartlow featuring dance steps from the Harlem Renaissance like the boogie-back, and the Suzy Q, which only added to this creative romp back in time.

All in all, it's a fantastic night of theater that only leaves you wanting more. And if you don't believe us, it got Hurwitt and the Chron and his little man jumping out of his seat.

Spunk plays through July 29, and you can get tickets here. CalShakes is accessible via the second exit after the tunnel on Highway 24, or via BART. A shuttle picks up theatergoers from Orinda BART every fifteen minutes or so before showtime. And always, you're encouraged to bring food and wine for a pre-show picnic and bring your wine into the amphitheater. But dress warmly!