Regional Reviews: San Diego
In Roger Rees' brilliantly staged and designed production (Eugene Lee did the sets, William Ivey Long the costumes, Christopher Akerlind the lighting, and Leon Rothenberg the sound), the audience enters to discover a solitary man sitting in a spartan room alone, seemingly wrestling with his thoughts. An onstage combo (Dan Lipton on piano, Benjamin Campbell on bass, and Brad Briscoe on drums and percussion) begins to warm up. As the audience settles in, Mr. Lipton makes the requisite emergency exit and cell phone announcement and starts to play and sing. But Mr. Wong bursts through a door that has rolled into place and takes over, all of a sudden becoming a happy-go-lucky song-and-dance man.
It turns out that the song-and-dance man is George Herringbone, and he has come to tell his story. And a strange and dark story it is. As a boy in Depression-era Alabama, young George is noticed at an oratory contest by a former vaudevillian, half of the act called "The Chicken and the Frog." The man offers to teach George to perform, and his skeptical parents are soon amazed that George is picking up song lyrics and dance steps (Darren Lee provided the choreography) far more quickly than would any other boy his age. And it turns out that George is not learning these things on his own: he has been possessed by Frog, the other half of the vaudeville act. Frog suffered an untimely death and has found in George a willing body to inhabit so he can wreak his revenge.
George's parents are aghast at this development, but Frog, who is also known by his given name Lou, manages to persuade them that he can make them some fast money by allowing him to take George (who takes the stage name "Herringbone" from the fabric of his first suit) on the vaudeville circuit. For a while, things go swimmingly (and Mr. Wong even mimes swimming quite humorously), but eventually Lou begins to assert more and more control over the boy.
Now, stories of possession inevitably lead to a cathartic confrontation, followed by some sort of destruction. But Mr. Cone's book (and Mr. Wong and Mr. Rees) want to have it another way. As Mr. Wong said in an interview published in the program book, "There's a Lou inside of all of us and we have to figure out what to do with our Lou as we live our lives every day."
This desire to engage in dialogue with one's devil is Herringbone's raison d'être and the rationale for staging it with one actor playing all of the roles. It is both obsessive and liberating simultaneously, and both Mr. Wong's performance and Mr. Rees' direction capture that duality remarkably well. They are aided by Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh's wonderful music and lyrics, which are infused with more than a few tinges of Brecht and Weill.
Herringbone is excruciatingly difficult to perform, and it is also tough to watch. It requires intense audience concentration, especially in the early going, to differentiate the characters from one another and figure out the plot. Things get better in the second act, but emotional relief comes only from appreciating the performances of Mr. Wong and the three musicians (which the opening night audience did generously). This is a brave show put on by people who are at the top of their craft, and audiences willing to engage with it will be rewarded in equal measure.
La Jolla Playhouse presents BD Wong in Herringbone through August 30 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre on the La Jolla Playhouse campus at the University of California, San Diego. Tickets, which range from $30 to $65, are available by calling the Playhouse box office at (858) 550-1010, or by visiting the Playhouse's website.
Herringbone. Book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, and lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh. Based on the play by Tom Cone. Directed by Roger Rees, with music direction by Dan Lipton, choreography by Darren Lee, scenic design by Eugene Lee, costume design by William Ivey Long, lighting design by Christopher Akerlind, and sound design by Leon Rothenberg. The cast includes BD Wong (George Herringbone and ten others), and musicians Dan Lipton (Thumbs DuBois), Benjamin Campbell (Slim), and Brad Briscoe (Patty).