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|A CurtainUp Review
Butterflies and Tigers
By David Lipfert
While the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) might not seem promising as subject material, John Glines has woven together survivors' stories to make an often compelling look at that decade. Along the way there is ample history, humor and, above all, irony. On the heels of the remarkably unsuccessful economic plan "Great Leap Forward", the Cultural Revolution temporarily succeeded in shifting blame from Chairman Mao to intellectuals and the remaining capitalists, but at great cost to society.
Mr. Glines probably gives only a glimmer of the religious-like fervor that was sweeping then throughout the ranks of students and Party activists, all armed with Mao's "Little Red Book". Part of the earlier cast of this play, a Chinese actor who had lived through that period taught the cast revolutionary songs and exercise movements from memory. Costume consultant Yui Fong Wong has all seven players in the intimate Orenda Theatre space dressed in identical black with bright red sashes, which cleverly become a series of props and scenic effects. Garth Reese's lighting follows the mood of each episode.
An enthusiastic cast of Chinese, Korean and Japanese actors prove their versatility in a rapid succession of short scenes and monologues interspersed between lively ensemble moments. Edward Wong is a professor accused of being a "radish"--red (Chinese) on the outside but ideologically white (foreign) on the inside, but work camp fails to affect his integrity. Keong Sim is a teacher sentenced to ten years of hard labor because he told his class an unapproved anecdote about Mao he remembered reading. His illiterate wife (Frances Lee as Butterfly Dream) scours the village for printed paper that just might be from the book whose title her husband can't remember. A medical student (Darcy Chin) becomes crippled after jumping off her building in a vain suicide attempt. Her family's crime was owning several inherited apartments.
Mr. Glines, best known as producer of Torch Song Trilogy, clearly shows that these victims survived on hope, whether to be exonerated or to see loved ones again. Sadly enough, other family members often enough had died in the interim, and the pardons granted later on were as hollow and arbitrary as the original sentences. It seems that there were no "average" experiences during the Cultural Revolution. The presentation is non-ideological but also not sentimental; even the final scene regrouping some of the individual characters is more objective than emotional. While the overall tone might be somber, there are numerous short narratives about laughably ironic situations inserted throughout to lighten the mood.
Although Mr. Glines's text works well, a few comments on his direction are in order. The first half of the play could use some of the engaging mime that enlivens Act II. In one scene that worked well, the actors cleverly utilized their red sashes to show men working in the factory and women sewing at home while another survivor recounts his plight. There were also more contrasting moods as the show progressed. Not reflecting the playing space in the round, many scenes are staged as though the audience were seated on one side only.
Butterflies and Tigers should appeal to theatergoers who would like to see the personal side of a significant but little understood event in modern China. A newly expanded schedule offers performances from Wednesday through Sunday. Running time is just under two hours.