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M. Butterfly

There should be nothing false between us.— Rene Gallimard to Song Liling
I hope everyone is mean to you for the rest of your life.— Helga Gallimard to Rene Gallimard
M. Butterfly
Christopher Innvar & Telly Leung in M. Butterfly (Photo: Mark Garvin)
Twenty years after its debut on Broadway, the Philadelphia premiere of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly is causing a flutter. Joe Calarco, directing for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, says: "The words realism and naturalism rub me the wrong way; if I want that, I'll stay at home and look out my window. I go to the theatre to be overwhelmed. . ."

Michael Fagin's scenic design is a breathtaking series of receding red concentric circles that resembles both a passageway going in and a Chinese cornucopia, spilling out of the stage. It's a completely different approach from Eiko Ishioka's sweeping serpentine staging for the 1988 Broadway production.

In M. Butterfly a diplomat, Rene Gallimard, sees himself as the Pinkerton character from Madame Butterfly and falls for his fantasy Butterfly, a Chinese opera singer. The PTC production opens dramatically as Gallimard pursues Butterfly into the red circular tunnel. She disappears and the large, sprawling story commences from a French prison cell. Gallimard's memories will intertwine with those of his Butterfly, Song Liling, as they tell the audience their story. Exposition and reportage alternate with flashbacks and fantasies shown in sharp vignettes that propel the play.

A newspaper account gave Hwang the idea for this play about a French diplomat's twenty year affair with a beautiful Chinese opera singer. It's also a gender story and a spy story, for it is soon discovered —by the audience if not immediately by the protagonist— that the Asian diva is not only a man, but a Red Chinese agent. Hwang ties this situation to the Madame Butterfly story and it takes off from there.

Although sparklingly original, M. Butterfly parades its precursor, and Madame Butterfly highlights are acted out with amusing commentary to acquaint the audience with important story elements. I'll recap the opera's libretto here: Young Cio Cio San, aka Madame Butterfly, is to marry Pinkerton, an American Naval officer and cad, whose ship has sailed into the harbor at Nagasaki. The marriage contract, however, is rescindable and he has no intention of staying with her. The American consul Sharpless implores him not to marry the girl, who is honorable and in love. They do marry, however, and soon Pinkerton returns to the US and takes an American wife. Meanwhile Butterfly has his child and faithfully awaits his return. When he finally returns with his wife, he doesn't have the decency to see Butterfly. Pinkerton's wife wants to raise the child. Butterfly insists that Pinkerton come pick up the child himself. Butterfly kills herself with a sword she had hidden in her kimono, and she dies as Pinkerton arrives.

In Hwang's play, Song Liling hates the opera Madame Butterfly. "Because it's an Oriental (a note on the political incorrectness of this term follows this and several other mentions) who kills herself for a Westerner, you find it beautiful," she says. She tells Rene that she finds white men's fascination with Oriental women imperialist, but tantalizingly adds that sometimes the attraction is mutual. As Gallimard begins to feel powerful, like Pinkerton, he experiments with ignoring her, wanting her to turn on his needle like a pinned butterfly.

The deceiver, Song, has other ideas. In a context of admiration for his job, she asks Rene what's happening in Vietnam. At first he's unaware of his own treasonous behavior, later his collusion will land him in jail. But spying is a MacGuffin here, not the point.

In contrast to John Lithgow's rather arch take 20 years ago, Christopher Innvar plays Rene Gallimard as self effacing and accessible. He seems like a nice guy, a simpatico imperialist though he's married and has a dalliance with a very out-going co-ed, gamely acted by Anne Marie Nest, in addition to his developing obsession with Song.

Telly Leung, on leave of absence from his role of Angel in Broadway's long running Rent, holds his own as Song. He has said he is inspired by BD Wong, who won a Tony for the role in the original Broadway production.

While Wong's portrayal of Song was languid, elegant and slightly mournful with a suggestion of drag queen, Leung's is lighter, youthful, flirtatious and prettily coy. References in the script to Song's small size, however, don't quite fit Leung, who's a bit solid for a delicate little thing. His "female" voice, a fairly unmodulated chant, can grate over a couple of hours, but his singing is miraculous.

Jared Michael Delaney, who was Aegeon in the Lantern's legendary production of The Comedy of Errors, plays Rene's friend Marc with panache. But I have a minor issue with the casting of the slight Doan Ly as Comrade Chin. Ly doesn't look at all masculine, and therefore the full irony of a woman who looks and dresses like a man criticizing a man who looks and dresses like a woman is lost.
In a play about stereotyping, perhaps fittingly the supporting roles are well played in quick stereotypes; shortcuts to pegging characters.

There are several on-stage costume changes (of Helen Huang's wonderful costumes) that presage later important ritualistic transformations. And there are shows within a show: In addition to the bits from Madame Butterfly, there's a stunning Chinese opera piece and later Gallimard and Ambassador Toulon (Larry Petersen), diplomats talking politics, are complemented and upstaged by a Chinese dance-fight.

The Suzanne Roberts Theatre's outstanding acoustics set off the clarity of Matthew Nielson's sound design. Judicious use of music includes moments of Puccini, clear incidental compositions by Robert Maggio. Sometimes hints of tunes are so beautifully quiet they're almost imperceptible. Where the Broadway version employed Oriental gongs, this show uses drums with music.

Surprise follows surprise with the lush set and Chris Lee's glorious lighting: This is about mega design, not mincing set decoration. The scenic design threatens to steal the show —although it isn't necessarily a good thing if set is valued more than dramatic action. Then, when it seems that the set couldn't get more dramatic than it already is, it aces itself by flying away and disappearing completely, impressively exposing a bare stage where the balance of the story is played out.

After stage illusions disappear and characters are left to untangle their personal illusions, simmering passions come to a boil, but then lose steam as issues get elongated. In a play about stereotyping, perhaps fittingly the supporting roles are well played in quick stereotypes; shortcuts to pegging characters..

Hwang has said that myths have saturated our consciousness and M. Butterfly is a "plea to all sides to cut through our respective layers of cultural and sexual misperception." When underpinnings of the play emerge they can sound like the playwright talking. Song says: "You're a Westerner. How can you objectively judge your own values? "

M. Butterfly decries the damaging stereotypes in Madame Butterfly and criticizes ideas the West has held about the East. At the same time the play exposes the double edged sword of racism, and some zingers concern stereotypes the East holds about the West: With a streak of mean-spiritedness that's funny at the same time, Song, who seeks sensitivity toward the East, says to Rene: "Could you imagine it otherwise? Clubs in China filled with pasty, big-thighed white women, while thousands of slender lotus blossoms wait just outside the door? Never. The clubs would be empty."

The Fagin set blends Oriental elements, and considering the show's Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese trails, the mix works. Madame Butterfly is set in Japan. In 1900, playwright and impresario David Belasco produced his stage version of a magazine short story by John Luther Long. Perhaps Long was himself influenced by elements of Madame Chrysanthème, a novel by Pierre Loti, set in Japan. Puccini, who saw and loved the Belasco play when it opened in London, transcended it with his famed opera, Madama Butterfly. In David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater in March 1988, the Butterfly character has become Chinese. Another Butterfly derivative, Schonberg, Boublil, and Maltby's Miss Saigon, which premiered in London in 1989, is set in Vietnam. The Butterfly cycle has become pan-Asian.

Recently I took in Hwang's newest play, Yellow Face, in which Hwang addresses stereotypes embedded in Madame Butterfly and M. Butterfly and recounts his response to the casting of a non-Asian actor in Miss Saigon. The question of how to properly refer to people from the Far East, which lies latent in Hwang's criticism of Butterfly, surfaces in Yellow Face. "Oriental" is a no-no as it retains vestiges of exoticism and a nagging reminder of romantic ideas of Western power mongers. However, it also connotes some sense of geographic location. "Oriental " caved to "Asian", the huge and homogenous term that's blind to regional identity and diversity within and among a myriad of ethnicities. Hwang, a proponent of this PC term, still has fun with it as he mercilessly lampoons the character of himself in Yellow Face for proposing to claim Asian-ness for an invented Siberian Jew, so that he can qualify as an Asian actor.

To return to the play at hand, at the end of M. Butterfly Gallimard is left tragically duped and exploited. He understands too late who's manipulating whom. Or was he more complicit than he is willing to admit? Who is the cruel Pinkerton and who the Monsieur Butterfly?

PTC's production is the kind of show that can only happen with the happy alignment of an el primo design team, confident direction, and intelligent acting. M. Butterfly is exuberant and provocative, an audience-pleasing night of theater.

M. Butterfly
by David Henry Hwang

Cast: Jared Michael Delaney, Christopher Innvar, Telly Leung, Ying Chun Li, Wen Tao Li, Doan Ly, Anne Marie Nest, Larry Petersen, Susan Wilder
Scenic Design: Michael Fagin
Costume Design: Helen Huang
Sound Design: Matthew Nielson
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Choreography: Chu Shan Zhu
Running time 2 hours, 30 minutes including one 15 min intermission
Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Avenue of the Arts and Lombard St.
Jan 18 – Feb 24
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 01/24 performance
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