David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play, M. Butterfly, was an electrifying treatise on gender and East-West tensions and tragic preconceptions when it premiered in 1988 with John Lithgow and B.D. Wong in the title roles of a fictionalized French diplomat stationed in China who manages a 20-year love affair with a Peking Opera actress without conceding she is a man.
The play is based on the true-life scandal of former diplomat Bernard Bouriscot, who was tried in 1986 and imprisoned for treason after it was discovered that he was passing sensitive documents and other intelligence to his spy-lover Song Liling, who sent them on to Communist China. Throughout the trial, Bouriscot contended he had no idea of Song’s true identity—or gender.
Their relationship is imbued with the westernized romanticism of Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, which tells of the delicate doom of a Japanese woman who kills herself after being ill-used and abandoned by an American naval officer. In the play, it is diplomat Rene Gallimard’s favorite opera and seeing Song Liling (Vichet Chum) perform it at an embassy function prompts the beginning of their web of desire, mystery and illusion. He calls Song “my butterfly” and she skillfully plays the part of a bright, beautiful thing captured and supplicant to the powerful Western man.
However, it is the Peking Opera that really draws Gallimard in, and Everyman’s workmanlike production (Chairman Mao would be proud) is briefly invigorated by choreography by Chu Shan Zhu, of the Washington Chu San Chinese Opera Institute, who incorporates vibrant movement ranging from the meaningful, stylized gestures of Chinese opera to the fierce, flag-waving snap of Cultural Revolution parades.
Otherwise, M. Butterfly is a rather desultory affair that is ploddingly true to the politics and zeitgeist of the 1960s through the 1980s in almost documentary fashion. It’s hard to judge whether director Vincent Lancisi and Bruce Randolph Nelson’s extraordinary chance meeting in France over the summer with the real Bernard Bouriscot was a boon or a bust. You get the feeling everybody is trying so hard to get the facts and details right and to do right by the fascinating Bouriscot that putting on a play is beside the point.
closes October 8, 2017
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Despite Nelson’s gentle, rueful portrayal of Gallimard—he seems like something out of a Graham Greene novel, shambling around in a tan suit searching for the China in his mind’s eye amid a hardened, cruel landscape–there’s not much emotional charge or investment for the audience, so we watch the events unfold almost like watching a news feed. What’s missing is feeling—sexual and otherwise. You get no frisson of desire between Gallimard and Song, and none of the delicious tension that must have arisen out of the blurred edges of sexuality, male fantasies and domination versus submission.
Maybe in this day and age we’re so used to seeing attractive men strutting around in a good wig and makeup that the shock value is lost. But we still need to feel that something went down between this oddly matched pair.
Ironically, the sexiest scene is between Gallimard and his young, uninhibited mistress (the excellent Katharine Ariyan). She sits half-naked on his lap as they discuss the correlation between penis size and warmongering (seriously, it’s juicy pillow talk) and their flirty, dirty sense of freedom is infectious.
The proprietary preconceptions Westerners hold about Eastern culture—you cringe every time Gallimard pronounces “oriental” with a syllabic caress—remain powerful and wrenching in M. Butterfly. Yet, the emotions expressed in the production are as modest as Song Liling claims to be, and as a result, the audience is held at a careful distance.
M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang . Director: Vincent M. Lancisi . Featuring: Bruce Randolph Nelson, Vichet Chum, Yaegel T. Welch, Katharine Ariyan, Tuyet Thi Pham, Deborah Hazlett, Christopher Bloch, Brett Messiora, Mika J. Nakano . Set Design: Yu-Hsuan Chen. Lighting Design: Jay Herzog. Costume Design: Eric Abele. Sound Design & Composition: Fabian Obispo. Wig Design: Anne Nesmith. Choreography: Chu Shan Zhu. Projection Design: Adam Mendelson. Dialects: Steve Satta. Props Master: Jillian Mathews. Stage Manager: Cat Wallis. Produced by Everyman Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.