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M. Butterfly

27 Apr

“Ah!- You Find it Beautiful” or The Not-Quite-So-Happy Show

The idea of representation is a theatrical one: The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear figures whose role it is to represent the whole larger whole from which they emanate.”
-Edward Said,
Orientalism, 1978

Tina Chilip (Suzuki), Randy Reyes (Song Liling) and Andrew Long (Rene Gallimard). Photo by Michal Daniel

The stage is black. Not the matte, scuffed black of a worn stage, but a lacquered, seductive black, a deeply reflective dark sheen that mirrors back the actors warped figures as they move across the lid of this treasure box. Fixating on the stage of the Guthrie’s Wurtele Thrust may seem like a surface concern, but M. Butterfly, which opened Friday, is a play very much about surface concerns and their hidden desires. David Henry Hwang’s crackling, incisive and often burstingly funny script is directed with confident, sharp strokes by Peter Rothstein, who leads his excellent cast through this tale of deception and desire that cuts across and cuts down cultural stereotypes.

The facts are these: In 1986 the French government arrested a French diplomat and his Chinese mistress on charges of espionage, which would not be too shocking except for the fact that despite carrying on the affair for 20 years, the Frenchman had no idea that his lover was actually a man. The Frenchman maintained that he had no idea as to the gender of his lover and put the fact that he had never seen him naked down to a cultural “modesty”. Inspired by this ludicrous and strange news item, M. Butterfly spins the story of Rene Gallimard, (played with a meaty sense of Everyman naïveté and self-satisfaction by Andrew Long) and his lover, Chinese opera singer Song Liling (Randy Reyes with his hands fluttering and voice unfixable as he plays all sides) as they conduct their remarkable affair. Overlaid with the contemporary deception (the play is set from China in the 1960s, where Hwang heightens the stakes by having Gallimard advise on the invasion of Vietnam to 70s and 80s France) Hwang uses elements from Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly as a foil to subvert the stereotyping of the dominant, masculine West overpowering a submissive, feminine East. Madama Butterfly has an American sailor marrying Japanese woman, who, when abandoned by the American cad, remains submissively faithful until the point of killing herself, a dedication to the fantasy of happiness that is central to the circumstances of M. Butterfly.

Eric Sharp (piano player) and Randy Reyes (Song Liling). Photo by Michal Daniel

Puccini and the details of Gallimard’s disgrace are introduced early in the play- the show opens with a second, raised stage inset at the back of the playing space with elegantly choreographed scenes from Madama Butterfly as Gallimard speaks from his jail cell, a simple raised platform in the center of the thrust. The staging is spare but decisive, rooms float like islands across the stage and up from the trap door, heightening a sense of isolation between characters trying to find a connection. The narrative structure is simple and none of the characters dispute the facts at hand, so the central tension is how long we as an audience can sustain our disbelief that Gallimard does not know. How can he not? In this sense there is a double bind of suspension of disbelief that the audience finds itself in and the two leads must navigate, and they play off each other exceptionally. Long, as Gallimard, makes the audience forget that he knows the truth about Song as he rises from meek mid-level functionary to acclaim as a lothario while Reyes as Song inhabits a multiplicity of stereotypical roles as that appear submissive while in fact controlling the action. That fractured sense is heightened by Rothstein’s canny use of multiple characters in Song’s robes, as well as Reyes own performance- his voice flutters in register, he slides across the stage and his fingers twitch as he whispers and pushes at Long’s desire to see and be seen as a man in control of himself and his surroundings.

This tragicomic twisting of the main characters is buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, many of whom play double roles. Lee Mark Nelson as Gallimard’s friend Marc is a whooping riot of prototypical manly bawdiness, and his over-the-top lasciviousness underscores how repressed Gallimard’s own desires are. Tina Chilip has some of the of the funniest lines, as Suzuki, the friend from Madama Butterfly who steps out of the serene action to loudly declare that “He’s a bum!” and then also as Comrade Chin, Song’s apparatchik handler. Chin’s wheedling suspicion, slow comprehension of Song’s need to keep up the deception and eventual tormentor in the throes of the Cultural Revolution are a hilarious and hackle-raising story on the corruption of power in and of itself, and Chilip plays it to the hilt. Classical at its core, the tragedy of M. Butterfly lies in not being able to recognize the source of desire and prejudice, and in the extraordinary lengths taken to preserve the fantasy of happiness. The production at the Guthrie enmeshes those tensions together like a finger-trap, and the only way to escape, as Song admonishes Gallimard, is to expand your mind.

On another note, let me put in a plug for Live Action Set’s The Happy Show, which opens this weekend at the Bedlam Theatre. After the opening night of M. Butterfly, I made my way over to an art opening at 1419 and was just in time to catch a brief excerpt from the show, a 5-person, 8-minute retelling of The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. With a cast that included Four Humors member Brant Miller, Isabel Nelson and Live Action Set’s own Noah Bremer, I didn’t stop laughing for the solid 8 minutes, and apparently the cast, upon leaving, have a cherubic blissed-out look on their faces. So go on, get Happy this weekend. I recommend it.

The Happy Show- Photo by Eric Melzer

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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    […] and after being made supremely happy by their trateaux-style Lord-of-the-Rings-in-8-minutes at 1419 late last week, I was looking forward to the show. After all, under the direction of Ryan Underbakke, the cast is […]

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