I'd never heard of actor Taylor Askman before the Vancouver Arts Equity's production of Herringbone, but as I took my seat in the funky Main Street Theatre in downtown Vancouver, a drunken woman sitting in front of me assured me that the 22-year-old is "extremely talented." My first thought? He'd better be. Herringbone is a one-man show, which means that if that one man can't swing it, the audience is in for a long, painful night. Fortunately, Askman can swing it. Damn, can he swing it.
The shockingly talented Askman plays Herringbone's titular character, a tall, self-possessed vaudevillian with curly orange hair and a ratty (what else) herringbone suit. Herringbone is the host of this show, as well as the sole performer. His first number is the song "One of Those Years," as in, "Have you ever had 'one of those years?'" Herringbone has, and this play is about that year.
Before he was called Herringbone, he was called George. During the year in question, George is a precocious eight-year-old living in the Depression-era South. His family is dirt poor, and when George wins a speech competition, his parents use the money to enroll him in dance classes: They've heard that "child stars" can make good money in Los Angeles, and they're hoping that George might be their ticket out of poverty.
George takes dances lessons from a man called Chicken, formerly of the famed vaudeville act Chicken and Turtle. Lou, Chicken's former partner, is dead; while studying with Chicken, George becomes possessed by Lou's ghost, who seizes control of George's body and forces him to strangle Chicken. George's parents hit the road, fleeing the crime scene with the Lou-possessed George in tow.
The family makes their way to Hollywood, paying their way with money Lou makes performing in bars (in George's body, of course). Through it all, Lou and George share George's body in an awkward tug of war. While in Hollywood, Lou forces George to run away from his parents—an abrupt introduction to manhood.
George and Lou vie for possession of George's body, a struggle that comes to a disturbing head when Lou invites a woman back to their room and tries to seduce her. George is horrified (and the scene is horrifying), forcing the conflict between Lou and George to a climactic end.
This elaborate story is reenacted entirely by Herringbone: Herringbone is George, all grown up and in full mastery of his inner demons. As Herringbone tells his story, he moves seamlessly from one character to the next: from George's wide eyes and high-pitched stutter, to George's mother's lazy Southern drawl, to Lou's hoarse, raspy bark.
Whether you take this show at face value, as a tale of ghostly possession, or read it as a coming-of-age parable with Oedipal implications, there's no doubt that in the wrong hands Herringbone could be an unmitigated disaster: The script, simply, is a bitch. It's demanding, hectic, and thematically abstruse. There's no room for error; if even one character is anything less than distinct, narrative coherence would quickly vanish.
And as if multiple characters weren't enough to contend with, there's the song-and-dance angle as well. Lyricist Ellen Fitzhugh has penned a few gems, like "What's a Body to Do (with a Body)?" after Chicken is murdered, and pianist K.J. McElrath keeps admirable pace with the demands of Skip Kennon's score. Some of the songs involve two or three characters, requiring Askman to rifle through his repertoire of characters with dizzying speed.
Askman, though, endows each character with enough specific mannerisms that they are each easy to identify and distinguish from one another, but he never veers into caricature: Each character remains human, even the fiendish Lou. It's almost unsettling, how good he is; at times Askman, like George, seems possessed. He keeps it up even during the musical numbers: As with everything else he attempts during this production, Askman makes singing duets with himself seem easy.
Therein lines the real marvel of this show: Askman's ability to keep so many plates spinning at once. His curly red hair and smooth, clammy make-up invite comparisons to a clown, and like any good clown, he is a mimic, a cipher. His identity shifts and dissolves behind his enigmatic grease-painted face; Askman looks like Gene Wilder and sounds like Tim Curry, but the sum of his talents is, without a doubt, one of the most impressive performances I've seen.