Review: M. Butterfly

Once or twice a year I go see a show or a movie that I carry it home with me. It has the power to keep me awake at night or sometimes to infect my dreams. Yesterday my family and I (along with my brother Tom and his girlfriend Rebecca) went to Arena Stage in Southwest D.C. to see their production of M. Butterfly. And I found that all night long I was living the M. Butterfly universe in my brain. As much as I wanted to turn it off I couldn’t. I’m still processing it. I likely will continue to process it for sometime.

No we did not go to see Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera Madama Butterfly, although I definitely want to see that performed some day. Instead we went to see M. Butterfly, a play written in the late 1980s by David Henry Hwang and actually first staged back then at Arena Stage. The plot of M. Butterfly borrows a lot from Madama Butterfly but twists and perverts it in different directions. Instead of Japan in the early 20th century we are in China in the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of an American sailor named Pinkerton we have a French diplomat stationed in Beijing named Rene Gallimard. Rene, a guy of course, gets involved with a Chinese opera singer. He seems to have no clue that in Chinese operas at the time men performed the roles of women. He ends up falling in love with this “woman” and over the course of a 20-year affair manages to remain wholly clueless that his illicit lover is actually a guy.

The plot has lots of diplomatic intrigue but concentrates on two areas. First it explores the male psyche and the proposition that is the natural need by men to completely dominate and own a wholly submissive woman. The second area it explores in the difference in Eastern and Western philosophies. It suggests that Westerners are by their nature dominant types and Orientals are submissive types. It examines the proposition that with a sufficient show of dominance by the West, the East will submit and all will be well. The play posits this philosophy but constantly challenges it with incidents, both on and off stage. The dynamics between Rene and his “mistress” Song Liling result in a constant tug of war between two personalities and two prisms of viewing the world. Rene projects into his mistress those ideal virtues of subservience that he expects in the model Oriental woman. Song at once seems to tacitly agree by playing the role of the submissive while outwardly rebelling.

Yes, it’s a confusing and complex plot. It was made more confusing to me because I don’t buy into these premises. I confess I find Oriental women in general very attractive. But I have never once thought of Orientals as inherently submissive, and I have never looked upon women as objects for my own selfish pleasure to be used and consumed like tissues. I acknowledge that many men may have this mindset but it is a perspective I just can’t grok.

Nonetheless the performance was wonderful. It is being performed on the Fichlander Stage, which is a theater in the round at Arena Stage. The acting is solid but newcomer J. Hiroyuki Liao delivers a completely stunning performance as the Chinese opera singer Song Liling. The incendiary material practically burns up the stage. And to call the show “adult” does not quite do it justice. This is a play that intrudes into your personal space, grabs you by the shoulders, shakes you violently to and fro, slaps you in the face a number of times and forces you to rethink your orientation, even if just for a little while. It requires you to ponder the stereotypes of sex and gender. It tries to make you reconsider your notions of love.

If this weren’t enough for your money you get one naked man scene. Near the very end of the play Song finally disrobes to prove to Rene that the “she” is actually a “he”. Had I known this in advance I might not have had my 15-year-old daughter attend, but she seemed to handle it without any particular trauma. In fact both she and my wife were crying at the end of it. At the intermission I wasn’t sure what to make of the play. It seemed too weird and I just wasn’t getting it. But by the end I was stunned. I liked it but it was hard to say why I liked it because it also really upset me.

There is not much to criticize about the performance. My brother Tom did not particularly like Stephen Bogardus as Rene. He thought he should have been played a bit plainer than he was. J. Hiroyuki Liao is absolutely mesmerizing as Song. While you are aware that there is a guy under all that makeup it is hard to believe, and he has down so well the little Chinese feminine ways of doing things. He comes across as wholly believable in what has to be one of the oddest roles in all of theater history.

I kept thinking how difficult it must be to act in this play. The actors must be totally drained at the end of each show, and to project the complex forms of affections required must be incredibly difficult.

Staging? There was no staging as it was a theater in the round, but there was excellent lighting work with patterns of lights on the stage floor representing rooms. At key moments the lighting and effects like flower petals floating from the ceiling, along with excerpts from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on the sound system added a surreal edge to the production. The play is full of surprises and keeps you at the edge of your seat right until the final seconds. I am sure most of the patrons were like me and left the theater more than a little stunned by what they witnessed.

There are some subjects that we so deeply repress that we have no desire to go there. This play opens boxes within boxes within our psyche. It is unnerving and should make you feel uncomfortable. But why go to the theater at all we are not forced to see the world through a different set of lenses now and then? This play will do this and much more. And if you are like me its aftershocks will linger for days, weeks or perhaps even longer.

Catch it if you can or if you dare. The production closes October 17th.

One response to “Review: M. Butterfly”

  1. As always Mark, I enjoy your writings. I saw this version of Madame Butterfly, in the ’80’s when it hit Broadway. I was so inspired by the play that I purchased the book. If I am not mistaken, it is loosely based on a true story. Not only does the story focus on the issues that you mentioned, but something that has become more stark from the X Generation and that is men who are unable to acknowledge there homosexuality. I think Forrester first wrote about it in HOWARD’S END (I hope I have the correct title.) There was another author of this period who also wrote a novel which was quite intriguing although I can not recall the title @ present. In any event, I enjoyed your critique and look forward to reading others.


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