‘Red Herring’ sinks hooks into marriage
When Michael Hollinger sits down to craft a play, his dramatic tools can be anything from ‘Moby Dick’ to Velveeta cheese.
Hollinger, who wrote ‘Incorruptible,’ which was done at City Theatre in 1996, makes a return appearance with his new comedic mystery ‘Red Herring,’ simultaneously a send-up of film noir and a fable about marriage.
‘Incorruptible’ was set in a 10th-century French monastery. ‘Red Herring’ takes place in 1952 in 24 scenes that move from the Boston waterfront to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s home in Wisconsin and a ship in the South Pacific.
An homage to old Philip Marlowe movies and the early television series ‘I Led Three Lives,’ ‘Red Herring’ follows Maggie Pelletier, a 30-something flatfoot in heels, and her FBI fiance as they wrestle with an edgy landlady, Senator Joe’s daughter, herring fishermen, and occasionally each other while in pursuit of a murderer named Moby Dick, a roll of microfilm hidden in Velveeta and some Russian spies.
Although he also writes plays with contemporary settings, Hollinger prefers to set them in other periods. His next is about a barbershop quartet in 1941.
‘Time becomes a character in the play,’ says Hollinger, who uses cultural references to the period’s products, entertainment, advertisements and conventions to comment on larger issues such as marriage, domesticity or ideals of politics and prosperity.
‘I think it makes the (play’s) world richer than if I say it’s now,’ he says. ‘When you do a play that’s set now, you’re asking the audience to make those things invisible. It’s one less element to play with.’
Hollinger says he enjoys tracking down the tiny details necessary to a period play. In searching out elements for ‘Red Herring,’ he read books about serious topics such as espionage, hydrogen bombs and atomic fusion, and he thumbed through a collection of herring recipes put out by the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association. He also interviewed a coroner, an allergist and the makers of Velveeta cheese.
Along the way, he made changes based on his research. ‘Originally, I made (Maggie) an FBI agent until I discovered there were no females who were FBI agents until the ’70s,’ he says.
Hollinger had long thought that ‘Red Herring’ would be a great title for a detective story. He was surprised to learn that it had not already been frequently used. The individual words were filled with meaning.
” ‘Red’ suggested the McCarthy witch hunt, so I placed (the play) between 1950 and 1954,’ he says. ‘Herring’ conjured up New England and its fishing industry, so he set the play in Boston. ‘Then I started to figure out that the play was actually about marriage. I thought there might be some cool metaphors for marriage in this.’
During Hollinger’s Internet searches using the keyword ‘herring,’ he came across Winslow Homer’s 1885 painting, ‘The Herring Net.’
This chance encounter quickly became the organizing image for the play’s theme.
The painting shows two fishermen in a small dory that’s riding the rough swells of the sea. While one pulls in the net of herring, the other unloads the catch. Their teamwork is necessary to keep the boat steady and guarantee their survival.
It’s impossible to determine the sex of the dory’s occupants. They could as easily be a man and a woman as two men or a young boy and a man, Hollinger decided.
He took the pair’s mutual dependence and continual need to bail out the boat as an image for a successful marriage. ‘In some ways, marriage is about the bailing,’ he says.
Since none of the characters was likely to have an interest in early- to mid-19th century American art, Hollinger had to devise another way to work Homer’s painting into his play.
‘This is the time period that art begins to get co-opted for advertising,’ Hollinger says. He decided to feature the painting for an advertisement much like the Fisherman’s Memorial Statue ‘Man at the Wheel’ in Gloucester, Mass., that became the symbol for Gorton’s of Gloucester frozen fish.
Homer’s painting now looms large over the set as a billboard advertising Ogilby Kippers with the slogan: ‘Put a fish in your pocket.’
‘I even had to write a jingle,’ Hollinger says. ‘I love all that period-aping stuff.’
‘Red Herring’ had its world premiere in January 2000 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia. But Hollinger is still working on it. He plans to make some changes while the play is in previews at City Theatre.
‘Why not try to get it rightâ¢ I learn something with every production,’ he says.
Part of the motivation for revisiting and revising is that Hollinger is about to have a volume of his full-length plays, including ‘Red Herring,’ published for the first time.
‘I’m expecting the draft I leave Pittsburgh with will be the one that’s published,’ he says.
Alice T. Carter can be reached at (412) 320-7808 or firstname.lastname@example.org .