Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2007
“I dance ’til the people applaud. The art’s thrown in extra.”
– a vaudeville hoofer
I am always attracted to the peculiar. Tell me that you’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’m there. Partly this has to do with spending my formative years in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, when everything new and different was automatically considered far superior to anything humankind had ever previously thought of. And partly this has to do with the fact that I am a very conventional person whose only hope for adventure is attending avant garde theatre.
When I read the WTF 2007 line-up I knew immediately that I would go to see Herringbone. The brief description contained three words/phrases which grabbed my interest: “Tony Award-winning actor B.D. Wong,” “vaudeville,” and “tap-dancing midget.” What a great combination! How could I stay away, especially since I have spent many months lately researching the life and times of Marshall P. Wilder, a midget hunchback raconteur who traveled on the vaudeville circuit and beyond?
Another reason I felt free to buy a ticket to Herringbone (don’t get your hopes up, GailSez.com fans, the WTF still doesn’t know that I exist) was because it was being presented on the CenterStage, the one performance facility in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance at Williams College that I had never been in and therefore didn’t hate. As many loyal readers will recall, I refuse to set foot in the MainStage theatre, although I have a sneaking suspicion that I have once again been conned into doing so this season by the gift of a free ticket from a well-meaning friend.
The minute I saw the CenterStage I liked it. I liked how the whole wall opens up to make the theatre and the lobby one when the show isn’t up, and I liked the stately and silent way the wall slide shut. I liked the seating and the sightlines. That is a theatre I will happily frequent, and in fact I already have tickets to the only other show the WTF is presenting there this summer, The Physicists.
The CenterStage is essentially a black box space, and I assume that the seating could be arranged in any configuration, including facing that wonderful sliding wall. Imagine that opening up on a whole new world in the lobby with all the glory of Williamstown visible beyond through the glass walls that separate the lobby from the great outdoors! But that was not the way the seats were facing for Herringbone. They were all facing north, towards a brick wall that I assume was the back wall of the old Adams Memorial Theatre complex. What were windows and doors are now holes in the wall in which scenic designer Neil Patel has created enticing little worlds that are never fully lit or explored during the course of the show. While I would be interested in someday seeing what a different actor and creative team would make of this show, I cannot imagine it taking place in any other space.
The action takes place on the cleverly herringbone patterned faux floor that Patel has installed. Across this zoom Wong, as he plays at least ten different characters, Music Director Dan Lipton, who appears as Thumbs Dubois and a mute manservant named Howard, and his piano, an old steamer trunk, and an occasional chair. Ben Campbell as Slim on bass, and percussionist Richard Huntley as Patty, remain stationary and contribute more to the music than the story line.
You may have heard about Wong’s disastrous collision with Lipton’s piano bench at the official press opening of this show. According to reports Wong is now performing this tour de force with 30 stitches in his thigh. He does still perform a thrilling running slide across the bench, but I notice that the corners are now all safely rounded off.
The plot of Herringbone is complex and bizarre. Wong plays George, aka Herringtbone, an eight year old boy from Alabama, who is possessed by the spirit of a midget vaudeville hoofer named Lou, aka The Frog, in the year 1929. In the first act we see the events leading up to George’s possession. George’s parents, Arthur and Louise, and his maternal grandmother, are frustrated when they are stiffed by the will if rich cousin Billy. Their next grab at riches is entering George in a public speaking contest, judged by former vaudevillian Nathan Mosely, aka The Chicken, whose midget partner The Frog died at the age of 37 when Mosely failed to catch him and he fell into the orchestra pit. As soon as Mosely looks George in the eye he sees The Frog there, but it is not until he has given George several weeks of tap dancing lessons that Lou takes full possession and, in George’s body, kills The Chicken.
I said “in George’s body” but of course there is only one body on the stage telling us this story. Wong has to make us both believe that he is ten different people of varying ages and genders, and also help us understand this convoluted plot. (That was only Act I that I described above.) While I have read some mumbo-jumbo about this play being about the exploitation of child actors, I don’t believe it for a minute. This show is just author Tom Cone, composer Skip Kennon, and lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh having a dark and macabre theatrical lark.
Act II takes the play in a very different direction as the inevitable conflict arises between the body of an eight-year-old boy and the mind of a 37-year-old man. Breaking George free from his parents and taking him unwillingly on an assignation with a (grown-up) floozy in a cheap hotel room, possessor and possessed come to blows. I had a brief debate with other people who had seen the play about whether or not George and/or Lou was alive at the end, and I say that at least George was because it is his adult self that is narrating the tale, but truthfully it is not very clear. Wong gives an astounding, powerful, moving performance, but he is ultimately much, much better than the material.
I was interested to learn that Herringbone has been around since 1975 when it premiered at the du Maurier Festival at the New Play Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia. Since then it has been produced in several prominent venues all over the world, notably a 1993 Hartford Stage mounting directed by Graciela Daniel and starring Joel Grey. Playwright Tom Cone (1947- ) was born in Miami, Florida and made his theatrical debut at the age of six, so he knows what it is to be a child actor. He immigrated to Vancouver as a young adult in 1970 and started his successful writing career shortly thereafter. Herringbone was originally presented without music, an incarnation I can hardly imagine so integral is the song and dance in the show as it exists now.
WTF Artistic Director Roger Rees has directed this production with great ingenuity and cunning. He, Wong, and choreographer Darren Lee constantly found ways to surprise me above and beyond the highly surprising plot of the show itself. Rees created wonderful stage magic with simple props that allowed us to see George with in relation to other characters as Wong was playing them.
William Ivey Long designed Wong and, I assume, Lipton’s costumes. In many cases George’s tiny trademark herringbone suit becomes a prop and a character as well as a costume. (As near as I could tell, Wong is not wearing any herringbone patterned fabric at all.) Frances Aronson has created magical lighting that helps Wong engineer his transformations.
Isaac Bashevis Singer was once asked to critique a story about a man with a chopped-off head who could talk. In reply he asked, “Isn’t it marvelous enough that a man with a head can talk?” That B.D. Wong can act AND sing AND dance at all is a miracle. That he can do it with 30 stitches in his thigh is heroic. That he makes it seem the easiest thing in the world to play a ménage a trois between an eight-year-old boy, a 37-year-old dead midget, and a hotel floozy is miraculous.
Herringbone runs through June 24 on the Center Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours with one intermission. This show is too complicated for adults to make heads or tails of and it does contain some mature and scary themes. I would not bring young children. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007