In some ways, I think I’m very lucky. At least in this one particular way that I have never seen M. Butterfly on stage before this evening (nor have I seen the 1993 film starring Jeremy Irons). Not that I wouldn’t have most likely loved the Tony Award winning Best Play of 1988 that starring John Lithgow and BD Wong at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, which ran for 777 performances. Rumor has it that this Broadway play hypnotized its audience with a mixture of eastern eroticism, intrigue, and moody mysteriousness. People talk about the production with a faint forgetful adoration, not really being able to remember what the play looked like, but definitely they all can recall how it made them feel. “Nothing blinds a man to reality, like perfect love”, so they say in the movie’s promotional trailer. As that quote reflects the truth in this tale, it seems to be true in our memories as well.
These virgin eyes and ears put me in a slight advantage the other night at the Cort Theatre. Julie Taymor’s onslaught is straight on powerful and direct, energetically engaging, and dramatically concise. It doesn’t seem to want to mask this tale in a romantic or mysterious mist, but to shine a more harsh, although I might say, realistic light on the story. Also apparent, is the desire to add some frenetic drive to the compelling story of treason and espionage that took place between China and France in the 1980’s. It is loosely based on the real world relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking opera singer who was a Chinese spy obtaining classified secrets during their 20-year-long sexual affair. It also appears that with some additional text added by playwright David Henry Hwang (Yellow Face, Chinglish), that a bolder and less gauzy attitude is being presented in this production, one with more graphic descriptions of the sexual acts between the two, and a more pronounced view inside the Chinese espionage circle Song was involved in.
From the very beginning, this play is harsh and angular. Locked in a tall grey-walled cell, Rene Gallimard, played to perfection by the magnificent Clive Owen (Harold Pinter’s Old Times), tries to directly convey to us why a former civil servant attached to the French embassy in China would find himself in jail, laughed and ridiculed by French society, and charged with treason. The tale told is like a Chinese puzzle box, constantly unfolding in front of us by our emphatic narrator, Gallimard, layer upon layer, just like the Chinese panels of a room divider. Set designer, Paul Steinberg (The Met’s Falstaff) and lighting designer Donald Holder (LC’s Oslo), along with Taymor (who in my opinion made the most beautiful A Midsummer Night’s Dream that I have ever seen at TFANA last season – click on the title for a promotional video of that production), have created numerous screens that slide in and out of the action, spinning and twirling in a constant frenzy of activity. It’s an exhilarating experience, these pseudo-Venetian folding blinds, adorned with painted images of Chinese painted faces, Communist propaganda, flat metallic grey cells walls, or smoked glass office dividers, positioning themselves to formulate rooms or environments. It’s a stunningly astute concept, based on a Japanese Bunraku technique that Taymor witnessed many years ago. At moments, the effect, mostly when enhanced with oversized and colorful Chinese faces or Communist imagery, is thrilling and powerful, giving a sense of cultural space and time. And the speed and energy of these screens in action compel the story foreword like a chaotic hurricane. The wildness adds to the idea that Rene could be so easily duped by this masquerade, mainly because he was caught in that storm and unwilling to see the reality standing in front of him. The moments that this conceptual construct works against itself is during the more mundane environments of home and office, when the structures don’t function solidly or seamlessly enough, creating uneven and shaky surfaces. I have heard many complaints among the theatre-going community that they feared for the stability of these walls, and while I understand the complaint, as I had the compulsion myself to want these walls to appear more solid and flatly connected, in the end, the energy and excitement these flats brought to the stage was worth it. An idea of only using the moving flats for the Chinese moments outside of the diplomatic walls, and utilizing more structural and solid walls, possibly dropped in from above for the diplomatic scenarios, might have made more sense. Creating two different universes, as the diplomatic world viewed the Chinese city they lived in with cautious and fear, as if it is as unstable, albeit colorful and exciting, as those painted screens implied.
Owen does an extraordinary job, brilliantly changing himself from the handsome and volatile leading man in such films as “Closer” and “Children of Men” to appear to be a more slight man who is described by many as “least likely to be invited to a party”. He hangs awkwardly downtrodden, especially when talking to his overly cocky school buddy, played exactly in that manner by the talented Murray Barlett (HBO’s “Looking“). He’s uncomfortable in his skin, seemingly to be the kind of meek gentleman who would in his university years have a difficult time with the young ladies. So it makes perfect sense when this shy man, finally married off to a strong willed older woman with diplomatic connections (a very fine Enid Graham), finds himself quite hopelessly in love with what appears to him to be a beautiful Chinese opera diva, Song Liling, played convincingly by Jin Ha (Public’s Troilus and Cressida). Naturally Rene is engulfed in the adoration of what appears to be the kind of beautiful Asian woman stereotyped by the tragic opera, Madame Butterfly, Rene’s favorite. And Song uses this to full advantage, becoming in Rene’s eyes, the woman that he has always fantasized and dreamed about. There is a fantastic thesis weaved into their relationship, about how Western men, especially those in power, view Asian society, projecting that ideal onto their dreamy characterizations of Asian women. Song seduces Rene by being the kind of woman that is wanted by a Western man, a type of woman straight out of Madame Butterfly. Song becomes that woman who will do all and sacrifice all for her Western man, typified by what Song once tells the Chinese authority contact (Celeste Den), “only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”.
There is a complication, and for anyone who doesn’t know M. Butterfly‘s secret, stop right here (although I don’t know how that is possible at this point). Because there is a deception, one that’s hard to be beguiled by once you know the “Mona Lisa” secret. One that Taymor (The Lion King, Public’s Grounded) doesn’t seem all that interested in maintaining dreamily. It is almost as if she assumes we all know, so why try to wrap it up in a big haze of mystery and denial. Is this a mistake? I’m not sure, as it never bothered me at all. We know the truth before entering the theater, so why pretend. Instead, there is actually another layer of deception, one that was not in the original production, added by the playwright. Song Liling is a man (this we know), masquerading as a woman on stage (and off, presumably only for Rene’s benefit), but in this revival, he tells Rene that because of his childhood history and profession, Song, the pretend woman is living life out on the streets of China pretending to be a man. It’s an added layer of complication that works well within the secretive relationship these two build, sequestered away and hiding in Song’s apartment, for both their safety. Secrets can be told between these two, or so Rene thinks, and although the reasonings for Song’s betrayal are unclear in this production, the intimacy between the two are revealed in their internal fantasy worlds, making the complicit deception believable.
The final moments, when Gallimard is forced to be confronted by the real world, his last act of love and the reversal of roles is powerful and intense. In some ways a more intimate and less expansive environment on stage might have brought us closer to his disappointment when seppuku (also known as harakiri) is performed, but the imagery of the butterflies remains devastating. I’m glad that this production was my first foray into this compelling story of Rene and his fantasy love. I did wish for more of that Taymor scenic magic like I experienced at TFANA, but I was not entirely disappointed by the conceptual sliding screens either. They were as bold of a choice as any in this powerful and well acted revival. The big reveal does lack surprise, but Hwang’s factual altering of this story brings it forward into the present world. He doesn’t allow us to see M. Butterfly through the same misty glasses as the Western big-gunned male would want to. Rene says, “I have a vision. Of the Orient. That deep within its almond eyes, there are still women willing to sacrifice themselves for the love of a man. Even a man whose love is completely without worth.” Hwang shines a harsh light on that fantasy, and says “You expect Asian countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Asian women to be submissive to your men.” So while Western men say “Yes?”, Asia says “No”.
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