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CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
The tiled stage, alternately looking like a bridge between two worlds and a prison cell of the mind, is an appropriate setting for playwright David Henry Hwang's humorous and at times insightful play M. Butterfly. The set, designed by Donald Eastman, fluidly moves between embassy ball room, squalid Chinese theatre, and French courtroom with just a few chairs and lighting changes. It's an appropriate stage for this revival of a play that is more about delusion - both personal and political - than it is about the "shocking" discovery that two men shared a twenty year relationship during which one of them dressed as a woman. Mr. Hwang melded the story of Puccini's Madama Butterfly with the real case of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot to create a story of jilted love and deception. M. Boursicot was convicted of treason during the 1980's when his lover turned out to be a spy. The lover, whom Boursicot insisted he thought was a woman, was in reality a man. The fact that they lived together in both China and France during a twenty year period made the Frenchman the talk of political and societal circles. He, like the actual Butterfly, attempted to kill himself, but like the real Butterfly, failed. Mr. Hwang, like Puccini, alters the story somewhat for artistic development and affect.
If you move beyond the "How could he not have known?" aspects of the play and look at the piece from a higher view, you see Mr. Hwang is looking at how people and governments choose to ignore reality for their own comfort and gain. So throughout M. Butterfly one character after another reveals the lies they prefer over the reality of their situation.
Rene Gallimard (Mr. Hwang's name for M. Boursicot) consistently paints a picture of how victimized he is, how innocent to the ways of the world he was, and how his love was so pure for his "Butterfly," Beijing opera star Song Liling. And through M. Gallimard's constant monologues you quickly see what a romanticized, fantasy view of himself, men, women, and Western and Eastern cultures he chooses to maintain. Stephen Bogardus does a wonderful job of infusing a teenage gushiness and wispiness as he poetical delivers his lines. M. Gallimard's wife, Helga (played with aplomb by Brigid Cleary), lives in her own delusional state, choosing to ignore her husband's obvious affair in favor of keeping her status as a diplomat's wife. The embassy workers choose to ignore reality -- whether it be to the plight of the Chinese people, their government's motivations for being in this slowly disintegrating colony, or to the fact that they are all cheating on their spouses with each other, the sentiment is basically "Don't ask, don't tell." And even the American government -- about to embark on the Vietnam War -- is given the insightful view of "The Americans always like to hear how welcome they are." A delusion we seemingly still enjoy today. And finally the epicenter of the scandal of the diplomatic community, Song Liling (wonderfully done by J. Hiroyuki Liao) lives a delusion of his/her own. Alternately treating M. Gallimard with condescending haughtiness and child-like need, he wonders why Rene has no desire or use for him when his charade has been revealed. The only one who views life with any sense of honesty is Kelly Brady's Renee, a college student studying in China whom M. Gallimard meets at an embassy party. Her earthiness and openness soon turns M. Gallimard off -- it's too difficult for him to hear her words. When she sums up their world politics discussion with "That's what we call civilized society. The whole world run by guys with pricks the size of pins." you have a feeling she is on to something. And it's this contentment to live lies that makes the story so interesting and yet, at times, so tedious and seemingly longer than its two hours and forty-five minutes.
Director Tazewell Thompson presents some interesting choices from a directorial perspective. The Asian characters are given almost cartoonish accents to highlight the idea of Eastern inferiority to Western culture. However, none of the French characters are given any accent, which makes the play seem somewhat lopsided. Mr. Liao's Song Liling is a blur moving across the stage, constantly creating arm gestures and striking haughty or demure poses. The symbolism is that she is like a butterfly -- always out of reach and hard to catch. While it becomes distracting after a point; it is this elaborate dance and the chemistry between Stephen Bogardus and J. Hiroyuki Liao -- together with Mr. Hwang's witty dialogue -- that keeps the entire production running.
Carrie Robbins' Asian costumes are wonderfully detailed and watching how the kimonos are tied is enlightening in and of itself. Fabian Obispo's original music blends nicely with the production and especially with the falling rose petals. Robert Wierzel's lighting is very effective and creates the prison cell scenes to highlight M. Gallimard's closed mind to the role he plays in his own downfall.
Viewed beyond the titillation factor of its subject, M. Butterfly is a terrific cautionary tale. Because when we are laughing at Rene Gallimard or any of his compatriots we are also laughing at ourselves -- somewhere in our own lives we have a bit of denial going on.
Editor's Note: For a Los Angeles revival of the play go here.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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