Duo swaps starring role in new take on Tom Cone's weird, wild Herringbone

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      Herringbone is a strange musical, complete with one performer playing 12 characters and a story focused on a possessed eight-year-old in the 1920s vaudeville scene. It’s being billed as “delightfully upsetting”. But it is also actor Luisa Jojic’s destiny. After all, the late playwright, librettist, and long-time Vancouverite Tom Cone essentially called for her to be cast.

      “I have a little personal history with Herringbone, which is kind of cool,” Jojic says. “I was workshopping some of Tom Cone’s later plays before he passed away. During a break, I went to a secondhand bookstore and I was looking around and I found a copy of Herringbone.” She brought it back to rehearsal and asked Cone to sign it. “I looked at it after and it said, ‘Dear Luisa, I can’t wait to see you play Herringbone.’ I was intrigued by it, but put it away, and fastforward to now and the first thing I did was pull it out, and look at the inscription!”

      “We decided not to argue [about casting Jojic], especially since this is a play about spirits who have been dead coming back and possessing people,” Peter Jorgensen jokes. He and Katey Wright are producing Herringbone through their company Patrick Street Productions. Jorgensen, who alternates the role with Jojic, even wrote to Karen Matthews, Cone’s widow, to tell her about their plans and Jojic’s connection. “She was so happy. She said, ‘Well, it’s been predestined.’ ”

      Jojic and Jorgensen both laugh. It’s the perfect bit of kismet for something like Herringbone. They are sitting in the basement rehearsal space of Centennial Lodge in Queen’s Park in New Westminster, eager to share the story of this production. Herringbone premiered in 1975 and became an off-Broadway hit.

      A few years later, it evolved into a one-person musical, with a book by Cone, lyrics by Ellen Fitzhugh, and music by Skip Kennon. Set in Alabama in 1929, it tells the story of young George, who, after bonding with a vaudeville veteran, becomes the target of possession by the vengeful spirit of the vaudevillian’s deceased mentor and former partner.

      “I would read it and go, ‘It’s so weird,’ ” Jorgensen says, laughing and shaking his head. “It’s so wild. Why are we doing it? And then we started talking with Kayla [Dunbar] about directing it and somewhere in that conversation, I think we collectively went, ‘What if we double-cast it? And not two men.’ ”

      He recalls how when he and Wright first approached the play, their default thinking was a male actor. “Then we went, ‘Why are we assuming that? It’s an actor in a one-person show playing multiple genders and ages and heights!’ So that’s one of the coolest things for us as producers of the piece. And we might be asking a lot, but we do hope that a lot of people come back and see both performances, because that’s the conversation I’m really interested in.”

      The double casting, though an innovative idea, has resulted in more work for almost everybody involved, and only half the rehearsal time for each performer to master all 12 characters, plus the complicated songs and intricate choreography. Today is one of Jorgensen’s rehearsals, and he’s just spent 30 minutes learning a difficult tap-dance number, while singing a song with lyrics that would tongue-tie Dr. Seuss.

      “I was flip-flopping about being in it and… It’s terrifying,” Jorgensen says. “That’s ultimately the reason that I decided I want to do it. It’s such a challenge as an actor, and I’ve been mostly directing things for the last 10 years, getting on-stage only every two years or so. The projects that I love the most are the ones that ask you to stretch and grow and, you know, bust out of what you usually do. And this piece demands everything you have, and that’s a thrill.”

      “I love to sing and I love to dance, but I’m not first and foremost a musical theatre performer,” Jojic adds. “It’s something that I’ve been cultivating gradually over time, so I am in a kind of heaven. It’s a kind of hell because the amount of work is incredible. But I’m just in total joy. To work as an actor like this—it’s using every muscle of my artistic being, and I’m just thrilled.”

      The pair are consciously avoiding seeing each other’s rehearsals so as not to be unduly influenced by the other.

      “Of course, there’s moments where I’m going, like, ‘What is Peter doing with this?’ ” Jojic says.

      “I have that question too: ‘What is Peter doing?’ ” Jorgensen jokes.

      “During the technical rehearsals, we’re both going to be in the building, kind of tagging off, because they’ll be long days. But I might still be in the dressing room going ‘Lalalalalala’ until it’s my turn,” Jorgensen says, plugging his ears.

      Herringbone runs until October 6 at New Westminster’s Anvil Centre Theatre.