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Theatre in Review: M. Butterfly (Cort Theatre)

Clive Owen, Jin Ha. Photo: Matthew Murphy.

If ever a play awakened a sleepy theatre season, it was David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, in the spring of 1988. At a time when Broadway was showing distinct signs of arteriosclerosis, it had the effect of an electric jolt -- a provocative drama that posed probing questions about East-West relations and cultural and sexual identity, staged with precision by John Dexter on a simple, elegant set by Eiko Ishioka and featuring stunning performances by John Lithgow and B. D. Wong. No wonder that, at a time when respectable plays struggled to run the season, it racked up more than seven hundred performances: It carried with it the thrill of the new. Seeing it again, nearly thirty years later, the thrill is diminished, in part thanks to a miscast star and a busy, bustling production that, too often, seems interested in pageantry for its own sake.

M. Butterfly originally gripped audiences because of Hwang's sensitive, authoritative handling of a titillating story that would seem utterly unbelievable had it not been ripped from the headlines. In the playwright's lightly fictionalized version, René Gallimard, a minor French diplomatic official posted in Beijing in the late 1950s, is lost in a web of passion and espionage. Straightlaced, married more for convenience than love, he plods through his days until he falls, hard, for Song Liling, a young woman who performs with the Peking Opera; soon, they are engaged in a deeply romantic -- and potentially dangerous -- affair. However, as the world eventually learns -- and which René continues to deny, long after it is reasonable to do so -- Song is a man, spying for the Communist regime. It's an ironic reversal of René's favorite opera: Instead of Madame Butterfly being seduced and abandoned by the caddish Pinkerton, René gets taken for a ride by his own personal Butterfly -- who, in addition to being traitorous, isn't even a woman. In what may be the lamest excuse in modern drama -- reducing René to a laughingstock among his compatriots -- he tries to explain his gullibility by saying, "It was dark, and she was very modest."

The René-Song relationship is, of course, the core of the play; it's an ever-shifting alliance consisting of multiple layers of romance, sexual insecurity, gender confusion, and self-deception. (As W. C. Fields noted, you can't cheat an honest man.) Song plays René like a violin, catering to his idealized vision of the submissive Oriental female, itself the cultural fruit of Western imperialist adventurism in the East. It's a hard sell, dramatically -- How did these two men have sexual relations over a number of years without René noticing something? -- and to work, there must be a psychologically acute dynamic between the actors playing these roles.

Unfortunately, Julie Taymor's direction is interested in other matters. She has gotten Hwang to revise the script, filling it with unnecessary details. For example, in the original, René assumes Song is a woman from the moment they meet. Here, Song is initially perceived by René to be a male specialist in women's roles, thus cueing a little lecture about the role of gender in casting at the opera. It's only later, when Song hosts René at home and he sees her in modern dress, that he becomes convinced that Song is female. In order to make a pedantic point, the narrative must take an unnecessary pause; already the focus is slipping away from the heart of the matter.

Then again, what really seems to have attracted Taymor was the opportunity to interpolate several sequences of music and dance from the Peking Opera. As choreographed by Ma Cong and gorgeously costumed by Constance Hoffman, who piles one elaborate brocade after another on bolts of Technicolor-hued fabrics, these sequences are, on their own terms, ravishing; the director and her collaborators also have a good time contrasting traditional opera pieces, rooted in China's folk culture, with Mao-era "revolutionary" works, in which sturdy young folk, clad for the overthrow of capitalism, arrange themselves in one banal triumphalist tableau after another.

Even if each of these mini-extravaganzas is artfully staged, they do little to support the story of René and Song; in each case, the play stops dead for them. One such sequence might help explain René's growing fascination with Song, but, en masse, they remind one of the sort of irrelevant production numbers that get inserted into troubled out-of-town musicals by the replacement director, who has been hired to fix things, or else.

Watching Clive Owen's performance, it's easy to imagine that this fine actor was left to his own devices while his director focused on her exotic floor-show additions. René is an absurdly tragic figure, a romantic innocent who finds himself trapped in an opera of his own, aching for the love of a woman who doesn't exist. Lithgow's René was pathetically deluded, with just a touch of femininity; even if he loved a pernicious stereotype, his feelings were deep and heartfelt -- all of which more than justified the daring denouement, in which, arrested and disgraced, he dons Butterfly-style makeup and dress to commit an unthinkable act. Owen's rugged good looks work against him here: It's hard accept him as a fearful fumbler around women. More damaging, his René never seems swept away by a dream of illicit romance; instead of being ravaged by desperate longing, most of the time he seems peevish, snappish, itchily uncomfortable in his own skin. He also exhibits little or no chemistry with Jin Ha, the hugely talented young actor cast as Song. (Ha fully convinces as a woman; he also delivers the character's more ironic speeches with slashing wit and moves with unfettered grace. Even under these circumstances, this is an auspicious debut.)

Taymor's determination to plant her own visual imprint on the production extends to Paul Steinberg's unfortunate set design, which is dominated by a sequence of tall panels with what appears to be a brushed aluminum surface that are moved, awkwardly, by members of the company. The play opens with René in jail, his cell consisting of two of the panels in a V formation, making a cramped, forbidding space. Some, with wallpaper patterns on the back, are used to indicate various interiors; they also flip open to reveal the faces of traditional opera characters, and, later, glorified images of Chairman Mao. Because the play is written in dozens of short scenes, they are constantly in motion, shifting from one awkward configuration to the next; in scene after scene, one is aware of them behind the actors, imperfectly joined together, often jiggling distractingly. Many times across the evening, this M. Butterfly feels like a play about scenic changes.

There are many good things, too, including Enid Graham, effortlessly touching as René's conventional wife; Murray Bartlett as René's school chum, a womanizer, who haunts his memory; and Michael Countryman as both the diplomat who first mentors, then jettisons, René and the judge at René's trial, who struggles to understand how the defendant was sexually deceived for so long. Hoffman's costumes include some smashing early-'60s suits for the wives of the diplomats; her work, along with Dave Bova's wigs, go a long way toward making Song's deception believable. Donald Holder's lighting subtly works a combination of whites of varying color temperatures and discreet dabs of saturated color to create a variety of locations and moods. Will Pickens' sound design provides fine reinforcement for the many excerpts from Puccini as well as Elliot Goldenthal's original music and soundscapes; Pickens also provides a variety of solid effects, including applause, street traffic, and voiceovers.

It was unlikely that any revival of M. Butterfly would give audiences the same frisson of intrigue and surprise as the original; the story is too well-known, and many playwrights -- Hwang among them -- have considered and extended his arguments. The original script is a solid piece of construction leavened by considerable wit and ideas that still provoke and stimulate; by adding all this froufrou, a once-powerful drama now packs all the sting of, well, a butterfly. -- David Barbour


(27 October 2017)

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