The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings


SEARCH CurtainUp



Etcetera and
Short Term Listings



LA/San Diego






Free Updates
NYC Weather
A CurtainUp Review

M. Butterfly
By Jana J. Monji

Alec Mapa and Arye Gross
Alec Mapa and Arye Gross
On Broadway in 1988, an extraordinary espionage story opened up at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. David Henry Hwang, inspired by an odd little news item, wrote a play about Western imperialism and Eastern duplicity that would win him a Tony award. M. Butterfly was about a minor French diplomat who had a long affair with a Chinese Peking Opera star who just happened to be a man—something the French man claimed not to know. This month, in an East West Players production at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, under the mischievous direction of Chay Yew, Alec Mapa, reclaims the title role that he took over for B.D. Wong on Broadway and played in the national tour.

Mapa doesn't look like a James Bond girl. He has the broad shoulders and thick somewhat muscular arms of a man. His Song Liling appears almost matronly. But in Los Angeles County where a certain married 50-year-old Chinese-born socialite was arrested last year as a double spy and was accused of having long-term affairs with two very un-Bondish FBI agents, we know that real spies look more like your average person than Hollywood stars.

Arye Gross is effective as the socially inept diplomat, Rene Gallimard, who marries a hilariously sexually inhibited older woman (Shannon Holt as Helga) as a quick step up the ladder via her father's connections. As he cruelly plays the cad with Song Liling, Gross convincingly becomes a braggart, swelled with pride. Though Gross is taller than Mapa Holt's Helga towers over Gross in her heels so that she seems gawky while Mapa's Song is always sublimely graceful. Even at Gallimard's most arrogant moments, Gross plays him as neither suave nor particularly sexy. With a receding hairline and glasses, his Gallimard is an everyman.

Mapa's Song Liling is slyly coquettish. He navigates the perils of a kimono as well as stiletto heels with grace. The geisha wig he wears when he dresses up as Madame Butterfly is a hideous Western idea of Japanese hairstyles, bringing a distinctly critical edge to Gallimard's affection for the get-up. In a stylish black suit, the unmasked Song is superficial and cocky man.

Yevgenia Nayberg's two-tiered set, unlike the London production or the U.S. road show, is unrelentingly dingy and depressing. The hues are soft and somber. The vibrantly colored costu mes make the division between Gallimard's prison reality and his memories more striking.

Outside of Gross's Gallimard and Mapa's Song, Chay Yew's touch edges toward slapstick. This softens the emotional brutality and adds to the leering nightmarish feeling of this production.

With a real Chinese spy drama making its way through Los Angeles federal courts, Hwang's play has a sudden timeliness. Until the real-life drama plays out, it's hard to decipher what added significance, if any, this play will have in the future beyond its witty commentary on West meeting East.

Playwright: David Henry Hwang
Director: Chay Yew
Cast: Arye Gross (Rene Gallimard), Matthew Henerson (Toulon, Judge), Shannon Holt (Helga), Emily Kuroda (Comrade Chin, Suzuki, Shu Fang), Alec Mapa (Song Liling), Jennifer Rau (Renee, Pin-up Girl), Erik Sorensen (Marc, Consul Sharpless).
Set and Costume Design: Yevgenia Nayberg
Sound Design: John Zalewski
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
Running dates: June 9-July 18, 2004
M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles (Little Tokyo). Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. $38. (213) 625-7000 x 20.
Reviewed by Jana J. Monji on June 19, 2004.
Tales From Shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co. >Click image to buy.
Our Review

Mendes at the Donmar
Our Review

At This Theater Cover
At This Theater

Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide

Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam

metaphors dictionary cover
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.

The Broadway Theatre Archive


©Copyright 2004, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from