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M. Butterfly

Theatre Review by Michael Portantiere - October 26, 2017

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Julie Taymor. Original Music and Soundscapes by Elliot Goldenthal. Choreographed by Ma Cong. Scenic Design by Paul Steinberg. Costume Design by Constance Hoffman. Lighting Design by Donald Holder. Sound Design by Will Pickens. Hair and Wig Design by Dave Bova. Make-Up Design by Judy Chin. Mask Design and Puppet Design by Stephen Kaplan. Cast: Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Michael Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Enid Graham, Clea Alsip, Celeste Den, Jess Fray, Jason Garcia Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oej, Scott Weber, Emmanuel Brown, Thomas Michael Hammond, Jake Manabat, Erica Sweeney, John Leonard Thompson, Erica Wong.
Theatre: Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue
Tickets: Telecharge

Jin Ha and Company.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Director Julie Taymor has stated that a Chinese puzzle box was the metaphor that came to her mind as the jumping-off point for her new Broadway production of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, based on the incredible true story (as they used to say in movie trailers) of a French diplomat who falls in love with a male Chinese opera star and begins a long-lasting romantic and sexual affair with "her," believing throughout the liaison that she is in fact the woman she presents herself to be. (Suffice to say that the use of gender-specific pronouns in any review of this play or the story that inspired it is particularly tricky, thus the quotation marks.)

M. Butterfly caused rather a sensation when it premiered on Broadway in 1988, starring John Lithgow as Rene Gallimard and a then unknown B.D. Wong as Song Liling, winning the Tony Award for Best Play and ultimately running for 777 performances. The play was originally inspired by a very brief news item in The New York Times. For the Taymor production, Hwang has delved further into the truth-is-stranger-than fiction story of the affair between Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, incorporating some textual changes and additions in this tale of sexual manipulation, self-delusion, subterfuge, espionage, Western stereotyping of Asians in general and Asian women in particular, etc. In terms of food for thought, M. Butterfly is a veritable smorgasbord, even richer now that we can (and must?) view it through the rapidly refocusing lens of early-21st century views on gender identification and cultural imperialism.

In collaboration with designers Paul Steinberg (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting), and Stephen Kaplan (mask and puppet design), Taymor has given the play a physical production that's significantly different but not superior to the original. The Chinese opera sequences—featuring music by Elliot Goldenthal, Taymor's longtime partner in life and art, and choreography by Ma Cong—are fully and excitingly realized. But in its other scenes, the look of the show is actually quite spare, relying mostly on several large, movable, vertically rectangular panels or screens that sometimes display painted images and a few projections but are often blank and monochromatic. (In truth, the production overall is far less visually elaborate than Taymor indicated it would be in pre-opening interviews. There was word of technical problems during previews, so perhaps certain effects and scenic elements were eliminated or simplified just before the show was frozen for press performances, but that's sheer speculation on this reviewer's part.)

Given Taymor's extensive and artful use of puppetry during her career, I joked when I heard she would be directing M. Butterfly that perhaps Song Liling would be portrayed by a puppet—but, aside from everything else, that would have made the Act II gender reveal rather difficult. Instead, we get a highly intelligent, beautifully calibrated, fully committed performance by Jin Ha, who presents as fairly masculine in terms of voice and manner (and in terms of muscularity when he eventually disrobes). If anything, this makes the story all the more intriguing in terms of how the audience interprets what Gallimard actually wants as compared to what he says he wants, how much he really knows or doesn't know, and where exactly he falls on the sexual orientation spectrum.

That said, Clive Owen offers a surprisingly dry and flat characterization of Gallimard, short on passion and seemingly disconnected from the man's emotions even when he should be very clearly held in the grip of them. Whether this is primarily an acting or directorial choice is hard to say, but it's an unfortunate one, regardless. There's only a certain degree to which the emotional power of this amazing story can be mitigated by such a miscalculation, but when several members of the audience gasped at Owen's final moments on stage, it felt to me a visceral response to the violence depicted rather than to the actor's owning of Gallimard's tragedy.

In other roles, Celeste Den is a fierce Comrade Chin; Michael Countryman is just right as the straight-talking French Ambassador, Toulon; Murray Bartlett is engaging as Gallimard's friend Marc; and Enid Graham excels in what relatively little she has to do as Agnes, Monsieur G.'s older wife in his marriage of convenience, most effectively when she finally confronts him with having found evidence of his passing strange affair.

If David Henry Hwang's latter career has been less than stellar, M. Butterfly still packs a wallop—even, as it turns out, in a production that features a wan performance in one of the two central roles, and even though the element of surprise has inevitably been lost over the decades. Perhaps my favorite bit of dialogue in the play comes when Song Liling rhetorically asks Comrade Chin, "Why, in the Peking Opera, are women's roles played by men?", and then answers his/her own question: "Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act."

On that note: In addition to all the other issues that Hwang deals with so incisively here, the play offers much commentary on the opera Madama Butterfly. Several extended excerpts of the Puccini work are heard during the course of the Taymor production, in the gorgeous Victoria de los Angeles/Jussi Bjoerling recording, and the Playbill has an ad for the Metropolitan Opera's beautiful staging of the opera, which is highly recommended in its own right and/or as an adjunct to the M. Butterfly experience.


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