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Vol. LXII, No. 35
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
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A Cast of Thousands in “Herringbone”? Not Really, but One Will Play Many

Ellen Gilbert

Clad in a Princeton University wrestling team tee-shirt, actor BD Wong took center stage at the Princeton Public Library’s first official program of the fall season last Thursday evening. Along with Director Roger Rees and Producing Director Mara Isaacs, he talked about their upcoming McCarter Theatre production of Herringbone, a one-man show in which he plays eleven roles.

“There were so many people on the stage the other day, I thought I was doing Ben Hur,” quipped Mr. Rees at one point, and the magnitude of Mr. Wong’s undertaking was a source of both humor and a certain solemnity throughout the evening. “‘Couldn’t you both stand over there?’” Mr. Rees claimed to have instructed Mr. Wong at one point when the actor was doing two characters. “Sometimes it seems like sensory overload,” admitted Mr. Wong, who noted that they were rehearsing five rather than eight hours a day to accommodate the fatigue factor.

The star, who is the only actor ever to receive all five major New York theater awards (for his performance in M. Butterfly) is undaunted, however. If anything, having thought about Herringbone since he first saw it as a young usher in a San Francisco theater in 1981, he sees it as a the role of a lifetime. “It spoke to me as a performer; it was very Olympic and hard,” he observed. “You are using all the different parts of yourself — including the dark parts — to make something wonderful.” Subscribing to the “less is more” philosophy, Mr. Wong does not change costumes as he moves from one character to another. They are “all as different as can be,” and he tries, he said, to imbue each of them with “individuality, frailty, and promise.”

Mr. Rees, who claimed (amid much laughter from the audience) to have been “too young” to see the original production, called the show, which opens at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre on September 5, a “musical version of Hamlet,” describing the writing as “thrilling” and the music “astonishingly beautiful, astonishingly poignant.” McCarter press releases describe the show as a “ghost story with a vaudeville twist. A musical with a dash of murder.” It revolves around George, an eight-year-old boy who “discovers his gift for tap dancing,” after which “everyone wants a piece of him. As the adults around him exploit his talents, George finds himself in a profound supernatural struggle for control over body and soul.”

The actor and director were both part of a Williamstown summer theater production of Herringbone almost a year ago. It was good to step away from the play for awhile, Mr. Wong observed, saying that he returned to it with greater insight about the characters. As a beginner, he said, he used “primary colors” to delineate the characters in the Williamstown production. Returning with that framework in place, he said, he can be more relaxed and do more nuanced things with the play’s protagonists.

Both Mr. Wong and Mr. Rees agreed (amid some bantering about pushing around furniture) that Williamstown was a more bare-bones operation than the “elegant” McCarter.

Later in the evening Mr. Wong observed that his perception of the role of the mother had changed in between the two productions. He himself has a “great mom”, with whom he enjoys “a great relationship,” and so, he said, he’d tended to idealize the role of the mother at first and found “great comfort” in her. He later discovered, however, that “that wasn’t the right way to play her.” As far as playing an eight-year-old boy, that’s easy — and kind of “spooky,” since Mr. Wong is the father of an eight-year-old son himself. As a result, he says, he knows just how to react to different situations.

What was it like to be an Asian-American playing all these white people in the Depression-era South, wondered one member of the audience. Mr. Wong said that it was very satisfying to play material that isn’t race-specific, but talked about how seeing an early production of Pacific Overtures, which has roles for 35 Asian-Americans, helped solidify his dream of being an actor, besides helping to convince his skeptical family that there were roles for Asian-Americans. Thirty years later Mr. Wong appeared as the lead in a production of the Sondheim musical.

Responding to a question about his role as forensic psychiatrist on Law & Order, Special Victims Unit, Mr. Wong said that it was “challenging in unexpected ways,” mostly having to do with technical aspects, like mastering medical lingo. The limitations and “creative frustration” he experiences doing the role are balanced, to a degree of the “global” benefit he gets from the wide exposure that comes with appearing on television. That said, however, there’s “not much to it, especially compared to something like this play.”

Mr. Rees’s pleasure in live performances was also apparent when he talked about his hopes for the future of the American theater. The director, who is also an actor (he appeared several times on West Wing), observed that a play is only 50 percent of the proposition; that an audience is the other 50 percent and “there’s nothing better than that.” Theater may not stop wars, he said, but it could educate people not to start them. He quoted playwright Tom Stoppard who said that the theater is “the last place where you can have a decent conversation.”

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