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M Butterfly

Alone in this cell, I sit night after night, watching our story play through my head, always searching for a new ending, one which redeems my honor, where she returns at last to my arms. And I imagine you — my ideal audience — who come to understand and even, perhaps just a little, to envy me.
— Rene Gallimard, the disgraced diplomat reflecting on his bizarre and intense affair with the Peking Opera star Song, Liling whose sexual identity is at the heart of M. Butterfly's still compelling head scratcher of a play.

As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East he's already confused. The West has sort of an international rape mentality towards the East.
— Song Liling at Gallimard's trial for espionage.

This war could be over in a year. Orientals will always submit to a greater force.— Gallimard, about the war that became America's lengthy nightmare.
m butterfly
Jin Ha & the cast (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Despite a fairly recent revival at the Pershing Square Signature Theater, most people would come up short if asked t to name the author of Dance and the Railroad. Yet, that very early David Henry Hwang play was like M. Butterfly a Pulitzer Prize finalist. And Hwang has continued to write lesser known but consistently adventurous plays about issues especially relevant to him as an Asian-American.

Of course, nothing has brought the success and renown of the complex drama he fashioned from a brief newspaper account of a stranger than fiction real-life affair sustained more by intrigue and fantasy than passionate sex. For the intrigue there's the Peking opera singer who's also a Maoist government spy named Shei Pei Pu. For the fantasy that kept the affair going for twenty years, there's an ambitious but not especially sexy or charismatic French diplomat named Bernard Boursicot

Even without M. Butterfly on his resume, Hwang deserves his reputation as our foremost Asian-American playwright because he writes well about always provocative themes and characters. He's not been averse to revising a play he felt wasn't quite right the first time, like Golden Child. With Yellow Face (2007, the playwright even took on his one really major failure, Face Value which closed at the intermission during a preview at the very same theater where the current M. Butterfly revival is now playing.

While the play has had its share of productions with various Rene Gallimards and Song Lilings, directors and designers, Mr. Hwang has resisted the urge to update the script. Instead, in 2011 he opted to continue his exploration of the falseness and miscommunication in culture crossing relationships with a brand-new and decidedly of the moment work, Chinglish . The Westerner abroad this time was an American embroiled in a compromising situation in the decidedly modern China.

But bringing the play back to Broadway after all these years did persuade the playwright to take another look at his original script — especially with two marque names on board: Director Julie Taymor who's also best known for one big hit, the gorgeous and still running The Lion King and Clive Owen as Gallimard.

So here's the bottom line on Hwang and Taymor's collaboration, and the new leads.
A good deal of what was fascinating in 1988, still is.

The script additions and deletions and Taymor's staging innovations work quite well. Paul Steinberg's scenic design with its sliding panels, at first looks rather bare bones, but morphs into colorfully painted panels to accommodate the kabuki style scenes in which choreography by Ma Cong and music by Taymor's husband Elliot Goldenthal shift the emphasis from Puccini's Madama Butterfly to the Peking opera and also illustrate the aura of the cultural revolution . These scenes are quite stunning but do tend to overwhelm the essential story.

The most obvious and least successful rewrite comes during the trial scene when Song Liling goes into extensive details about the mechanics of his and Gailimard's sexual encounters. Instead of feeling fresh and daring, the otherwise riveting segment feels over-stuffed.

Even if not a word in the text were changed, it's unlikely that anything except the last scene (a breath taker) can shock audiences accustomed to greatly changed social mores and non-traditional gender identities. On the other hand, the socio-political aspects of the play though specific to the time when America was about to take over France's failure in Vietnam, are depressingly undated.

Mr. Hwang's aim was always to use the male-female-male gender aspects of this improbable but fact-based romantic mystery as a metaphor to reveal the universal conflict between men and women, East and West. The way Gallimard blinds himself to the true identity of the Chinese version Puccini's opera thus makes him a potent symbol of the tone-deaf Westerner's sense of superiority and his belief that "Orientals will always submit to a greater force."

Of course those "Orientals" didn't submit within a year to the powerful Americans as predicted by the sexually insecure but overly confident about his cultural superiority Gallimard. And so, who seeing this revival can miss the similarities to the tone deaf diplomacy of America's current government or how the brouhaha triggered by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's downfall has made that "Western rape mentality" mentioned in Song's testimony all too universal.

Clive Owen and Jin Ha both give vivid new life to the diplomat and the object of his fantasy — the "perfect woman" created by a man "because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."

The British Owen has hardly made his reputation as the not very attractive persona originally associated with Gallimard. His on screen roles include the debonair title character of Croupier. In his only other Broadway appearance he played the cocky, suave Deeley of Harold Pinter's Old Times . Yet, he manages to give a terrifically watchable, full-bodied performance that captures the man's deep despair, conflicting emotions and wry humor. And just listening to his crystal clear line delivery is a pleasure in and of itself.

Those who saw B.D. Wong's Song Liling's, may find Jin Ha not quite as delicately feminine. However, his interpretation makes for an impressive Broadway debut. There is a downside for both actors. Both are best when alone on stage (which Owen happily is almost throughout) or with other characters, since the sexual sizzle between them never rises above a simmer.
Since this is not a 2-character play, a word about the various other characters. Enid Graham does full justice to the diplomat's older wife Agnes. Murray Bartlett is aptly obnoxious as Gallimard's longtime friend Marc. Clea Alsip makes the most of two small roles, especially as the girl emerging from the projected cover of a porno magazine. Michael Countryman is terrific in his three roles, especially as Rene's boss. Celeste Den is a standout as the scary Comrade Chin.

In the final analysis, if you saw the original, I suggest that you park the urge to compare before taking your seat at the Cort. If this is your first viewing, don't bother wondering if it measures up to the one you missed . In short, if you buy a ticket, go to this M. Butterfly with an open mind. Even if it doesn't add up to quite the Wow you saw or heard about, you'll find it to still be an intriguingly unusual and enormously theatrical story.

Of course, if you're hell bent to revisit the original, a google search for images of the original M. Butterfly production will land you at a page with photos of the original setting, and actors

For even more complete details about the real story you can read Joyce Wadler's New York Times Magazine article "The True Story of M. Butterfly; The Spy Who Fell in Love With a Shadow" ( A novel version of that article named Liaison, is also still available.

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M.Butterfly by David Henry Hwang
Directed by Julie Taymor Cast: Clive Owen (Rene Gallimard), Jin Ha (Song Liling), Clea Alsip (Pinup Girl, Renee), Murray Bartlett (Pinkerton, Michael), Michael Countryman (Sharpless, Toulon, Judge), Celeste Den (Comrade Chin), Enid Graham (Agnes). Jess Fry, Jason Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Scott Weber (Dancers).
Original music by Elliot Goldenthal
Choreography by Ma Cong
Scenic design by Paul Steinberg
Costume design by Constance Hoffman
Lighting design by Donald Holder
Sound design by Will Pickens
Wig and hair design by Dave Bova
Makeup design by Judy Chin
Stage Manager: Robert Bennet
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermssion
Cort Theatre, 138 W 48th St, (212) 239-6200
From 10/07/17; opening 10/26/17; closing early-12/17/17.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at October 30th press performance

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