B.D. Wong’s tour de force performance in ‘Herringbone’
The star of Herringbone, now performing at the La Jolla Playhouse, says the story of the show is not what the show is about, but the story is how it is being presented.
B.D. Wong – best known on stage for his award-winning role in M Butterfly and on TV for his roles in HBO’s Oz and Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit – plays George Herringbone, a performer narrating a tall tale, a story that requires George (and the actor) to portray more than a dozen personalities, including an 8-year old boy possessed by a tap-dancing homicidal dwarf. Wong says the reasoning why his main character is telling the story is more important than the story itself, and even more important than how he tells the story.
“The evening that the audience experiences is an evening of a performer telling the tale of what appears to be a self-created theatrical performance,” Wong said, during a recent rehearsal break. “In the course of the evening, he tells a tall tale – which we come to understand in an increasing way throughout the evening what it means to him and why he’s telling it.”
The actor admits the fable seems almost too unbelievable that something like this would actually happen. Yet as the show progresses, the audience realizes that what he is really showing is how he battles multiple personalities in his life, something that everyone has.
“What we realize is the man who is telling us this, almost more importantly than the story itself,” Wong explains, “he is telling a little bit of how one wrestles with the demons in their lives through telling this story. It is much more important for us to understand the guy who is telling the story as it is to tell the story itself. Of course, the story is important, but why he is telling it and why it’s him and why he’s telling it in this fashion are really important.”
So what is the story that Herringbone tells?
“The story he is telling is the story of a young boy – for all intents and purposes, is him – who becomes supernaturally possessed by the spirit of an ex-vaudevillian who was murdered, and has apparently come back to avenge his murder in the body of this little boy,” Wong answers.
Wong plays George who, throughout the show, plays his younger self, his mother, his father, his grandmother, his teacher, a girlfriend and a host of other characters. Of course, he also plays the spirit of Lou, the murderous vaudeville performer. Wong switches back and forth between characters throughout the tangled tale, adding songs and dances along the way. In Wong’s tour de force performance, Herringbone spins a haunting and fascinating story.
“George tells the story by himself, on a stage, in front of live audience – that’s very important to him, that there are people there witnessing it – and he uses his skills in song and dance, and tells it by embodying all the different characters,” Wong elaborates. “They talk to each other. It’s rather schizophrenic, and complex at times. It’s basically like watching a guy tell a really scary ghost story and acting it all out – and there are songs in it.”
Promoted as “darkly comic,” Herringbone strikes an odd balance between the bright lights of vaudeville and the dark shows of demonic possessions. With fourteen songs, several dance numbers and Wong’s virtuosic performance, Herringbone is fun and entertaining. It is also dark, shocking, terrifying and perverted.
“I’m not sure if there is an answer to how you balance it,” Wong says, adding that distinction is what drew him to the play. “Most plays balance comedy and drama in one way or another. This one is a musical in a very traditional sense – it has the structure of a normal musical – but the story is very dark, very mysterious. The comedy comes from acknowledging the darkness.”
The darkness includes a climactic battle over George’s mind, body and soul. “The main thrust of the story is how the boy discovers the possession and what he does to struggle against it and what he does to overcome it,” Wong says. And George prevails over his inner demon by performing the show.
Presented by the La Jolla Playhouse
Through Aug. 31
In the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
(Located on the UCSD Campus via the Revelle Entrance)
Box Office: 858.550.1010