Herringbone: BD Wong in 10 Roles
The conceit is that we are watching the song and dance filled vaudeville act of George Herringbone. His act consists of the retelling of the strange depression era tale of his life. There is a three-piece on stage band led by his pianist, Thumbs Dubois (Dan Lipton), whom Herringbone relies on for support. Herringbone in essence is a one man show in which the title character provides sharply distinctive interpretations of each of the participants in his story. Most prominent are George, his childhood self, and the old deceased vaudevillian Lou with whom shares his body.
The story certainly feels allegorical, although the allegory is elusive. Eight-year-old George and his dirt poor parents, Arthur and Louise, live in Demopolis, Alabama, where George wins a speech contest judged by vaudevillian Nathan Mosley. Using George's prize money, his parents buy him a new suit and purchase acting lessons for him from Mosley in anticipation of taking him to Hollywood to make the family fortune. Shortly, George can't stop dancing. Then a croaking voice emerges from the boy's mouth. Lou, Mosley's deceased, midget-sized vaudeville partner (their act was known as The Chicken and the Frog) has entered George's body. Under Lou's control, George strangles Mosley to death in revenge for the latter's having let Lou fall to his death during a performance. Mosley's deaf mute servant is charged with the crime. Under the influence of Lou, the possessed George and his parents hit the road seeking fame and fortune in vaudeville. On the road, Arthur and Louise are soon left behind by George and Lou. Most disturbing for the underage George is a sexual encounter with a woman named Dot which Lou has initiated.
BD Wong delivers a most impressive, whirlwind performance with a display of unflagging energy. Employing distinctive voices and speech patterns, varying postures and gestures, and facial expressions and contortions, he clearly defines each of his characters. Often, Wong portrays as many as five interacting characters, each speaking variously in rapid fire fashion over the course of a matter of seconds. He delivers the largely jaunty, upbeat songs by Skip Kennon and Ellen Fitzhugh with a great deal of panache. Fitzhugh's lyrics have an off-beat quality appropriate to the occasion. A poor sound balance with an overly amplified piano seemed to cause Wong to strain his voice at times.
Director Roger Rees keeps matters moving at a fast pace, and has employed a double turntable (one inside the other, sometimes moving in opposite directions simultaneously) to provide visual interest. However, there is an incessant upbeat quality to his direction which masks the gothic horror of Tom Cone's book.
Eugene Lee has provided an intricate and fascinating little set which displays an upstage dressing room (in which Herringbone prepares for tonight's performance as we enter the theatre), a freestanding door for entry into the story's various locations, some props and the aforementioned double turntable. William Ivey Long has provided a straw boater, bow tie and fancy vest for Wong, and a miniature herringbone suit which is essential to the storytelling.
Herringbone continues performances (Evenings.: Tuesday/Wednesday,/Thursday/Sunday 7:30 p.m.; Fri./Sat. 8 p.m.; Matinees.: Sat. 3 p.m./ Sun. 2 p.m. – No 7:30 PM performance 10/12) through October 12, 2008 at the McCarter Theatre Center (Berlind Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ 08540. Box Office: 609-258-5050; online: www.mccarter.org.
Herringbone book by Tom Cone, music by Skip Kennon, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh; directed by Roger Rees