Sunday, February 10, 2019

'The Ballad of Klook and Vinette': Fonseca Theatre Company stages a song cycle embedded in a searing narrative

Dwuan Watson and LeKesha Lorene play deeply committed lovers.
Unlike another famous ballad that strikes deep into black folklore, "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette" is not about love gone wrong through any doomed straying on the part of one partner.

"Frankie and Johnny" offers a timeless warning of the sometimes fatal consequences of infidelity. In contrast, Ché Walker's emotionally involving story of African-American lovers in the contemporary big city describes a strong romance that goes wrong because of an external threat and bad luck.

The bond that Dwuan Watson and LaKesha Lorene forge in this one-act drama with music has the audience pulling for the romance's staying power. The Fonseca Theatre Company's first show of the New Year is a love letter whose power will extend through Valentine's Day weekend at the company's temporary home, Indy Convergence.

Walker's script is often ornate, weaving together high-flown talk with street vernacular, including tightly packed hip-hop rhymes and alliteration. Sometimes the stylistic breadth seems to override character delineation, though Bryan Fonseca's direction keeps the story anchored in plausible people.

To launch the action, there's a meet-cute in a juice bar, and mutual attraction quickly attains a laser-like focus. The actors' body language, quasi-choreographic now and then, displays the complexity of the bond between a middle-aged man with a checkered past and a young woman torn by self-doubt and apt to undercut her potential as a writer and a human being. They are good for each other; love helps both Klook and Vinette draw on their most positive resources to support what is best in the other.

From time to time, Klook and Vinette give vent to their feelings in song. The songs, by Aroushka Lucas and Omar Lyefook, are deftly accompanied in this production by guitarist Tim Brickley and keyboardist Jon Strombaugh. Some of the songs are melodically sturdy, like the crucial "Am I in Your Heart?," while others are designed almost as accompanied recitative, joined informally at the hip to spoken dialogue. At Sunday afternoon's performance, the rapport between singers and accompaniment struck home. Even the finale, a duo reprise of the song we first hear as Klook's solo, made the impact it needs to, though the tune is slight.

Bernie Killian's set design, given extra significance by Fonseca's lighting, is an uncluttered arrangement of two straight-back chairs and a matching wood table.  The sunlight streaming in through Venetian blinds is an effect that reinforces the hope sustaining the relationship, even though that hope is shadow-striped and eventually snuffed by a creepy outsider's interference in the lovers' lives. Laurie Silverman's costuming, especially of Vinette, heightens the contrast between the worker-bee mentality of Klook and his insecure girlfriend's upwardly mobile fashion sense.

The melding of diverse personalities, so vital to so many kinds of relationship, comes through winningly in Lorene's and Watson's performances. The script juggles a variety of attitudes and conflicts with occasional awkwardness, but the solid romantic foundation of "The Ballad of Klook and Vinette" is never in doubt. To borrow a line from a much different tragic ballad: "O Lordy, how they could love!"

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