“…Tonight, I've finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”
Soft blues, subtle pinks, curvy kimonos, and vivid whirling ribbons fill the air, flowing in elaborate stylized movement, tantalizing the audience with a mythical glimpse into an ancient culture. Filling those curves is Song Liling, a young Chinese opera singer whose every move captivates Rene Gallimard, a civil servant who works for the French embassy in China.
Rene’s palpable intrigue is as much an attraction to Asian culture as it is Song’s alluring femininity. Her long, sleek black hair draping over silken, flowing gowns with delicious flower patterns. The unmistakable demureness of her obvious charm, her graceful moves, her suppressed walk, with eyes that look up ever so slightly — eyes often filled with desire. Rene was overcome.
David Henry Hwang presents his Tony award winning opus and Pulitzer-prize finalist, “M. Butterfly,” directed with gallant and thoughtful force by Desdemona Chiang, as the concluding entry for the 2018-2019 season — a daring piece of theatre that is at once edgy, dangerous, controversial and sexy.
The play opened May 11th and runs through June 8th, with a powerful and emotional story, seen through the eyes of Rene (impeccably performed by Lucas Verbrugghe). Rene is clearly fascinated by Song (played by Jake Manabat in a charismatically driven turn). Compare the way she moves, as smooth and fragile as the butterfly she personifies, to Agnes (Nike Doukas, who plays Rene’s perceptive, probing wife with precision), a tall, attractive, traditional European female. But it would not matter at this point if Agnes were a beauty queen—Rene is already consumed with passion for his paramour—his butterfly.
Rene happened to be in the audience that night to see Song perform the death scene of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” As the opera’s Cio-Cio-San, Song is an exquisitely delicate and vulnerable blossom. Rene declares her “the perfect woman.” Having first encountered her performing a fictional version of his fantasy of total romantic supplication, he almost can’t help himself. Immediately, and compulsively, he pursues her.
Hwang, grizzled veteran of American Theatre and one of the foremost playwrights of his generation, had his first meeting with South Coast Repertory in the early 1980’s, and was immediately signed for one of SCR’s first new-play commissions, “Golden Child.” At the time, however, another play, “M. Butterfly,” was in development, a play that would cause his career to sky-rocket. It went straight to Broadway and starred John Lithgow and BD Wong in the leads.
Since the world premiere of the play in 1988, Hwang has revisited the original script, updating and transforming the Chinese and Western perspectives to more closely reflect the true real-life relationships on which the story is based. As a result, the playwright has fashioned his main character as a man who has lived a spotless life of marital fidelity, only to be caught in a web of cultural misunderstandings and erotic mythologies.
The tale is really based on actual events, about a career French foreign service officer named Bernard Boursicot, who was found guilty of treason in 1986 for passing official secrets to his lover, a Peking opera star, with whom he had carried on a long affair in Beijing and later in Paris. The story is also told in “The True Story of M. Butterfly: The Spy Who Fell in Love With a Shadow,” by Joyce Wadler, and in the 1993 film, "M. Butterfly," starring Jeremy Irons, directed by David Cronenberg,
Consequently, South Coast Repertory’s well-calibrated new stage production, “M. Butterfly,” succeeds with a skillful elegance that belies just how complex the power dynamics are between the fallen diplomat and his Beijing mistress. Mr. Verbrugghe, one of this generation’s most talented actors, plays a wrenchingly sad and tortured Rene Gallimard. The play opens in the year 1980, as he is convicted of treason for passing diplomatic secrets to his Chinese inamorata on behalf of Mao’s China. It's a compelling story, forging a practical, conspiratorial kinship with the audience, even from Rene’s first rose-colored recollection of meeting Song at the ambassador’s residence in Beijing.
Although both lovers relate their desires and schemes to the audience, the play proceeds predominantly via Rene’s narration, delivered from within a Paris prison cell. Rene tells us that his story is based on Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” with himself as Pinkerton and his lover as Cio-Cio-San, the feminine ideal in the opera.
The story is told as flashbacks in a series of staccato scenes that are like a fever dream of the imprisoned Rene. He sees his bizarre downfall as a perverse distinction, aware that he has become a celebrity, if nothing more than a cocktail party joke among Paris colleagues in the diplomatic corps. At his initial posting in China, he had eventually earned a grudging respect for bedding one of the locals, this woman of modest stature with the Chinese Opera. It was not very often fraternization took place outside French circles within the embassy staff.
In another flashback, his relationship with his wife has deteriorated and he has a half-hearted fling with a European woman he meets at a party (Juliana Hansen). Her name is also Renee, and is much more interested in sexual activities than Rene is.
Aaron Blakely’s Marc, an old school chum of his, and a ne’er-do-well Lothario, saw his filandering as a feather in Rene’s cap. Suddenly, Rene appeared poised for advancement within the foreign service.
The news of the affair and his sentence made Gallimard a celebrity. His naïveté is discussed at Parisian parties. “You see?" he says currently from his prison cell, "They toast me. I’ve become the patron saint of the socially inept.”
But, like the upper hand in Rene and Song’s fraught relationship, sympathies shift sharply and swiftly as Cold War-era espionage and coordinated deception enter the plot, which unfurls over decades. Led by Director Chiang’s sensitive direction, the production tells a complete story that, as much as it dissects stereotypes about warring, bellicose nations and cultures, also reveals a man who’s recognizably, woefully at war with himself. Song even convinces Rene that she is pregnant and procures an infant from a rural family. Rene believes the child is his and provides financial support, later moving the boy to Paris.
In an effort not to spoil the play’s surprises, Hwang ascribes Song into a deep layer of gender “performances” when performing. This tends to shift the balance of power from alternating guileless wonderment and cynical charm by Mr. Verbrugghe, to Mr. Manabat’s Song. It is through their seesaw dialogue that Hwang is not only his most didactic but also most witty, playing off Western imperialist naïveté against the ancient, sometimes mocking wisdom of the East.
Even their dance is bittersweet, and Mr. Verbrugghe and Mr. Manabat (now dressed in an upscale suit) finally find the truth, while rendering intense portrayals in the courtroom as two inveterate liars. In a stunning ending, the play delivers a finely calibrated duel of mutual deceptions, and Hwang’s acidly witty lines and satirical quips force us to face our own Western delusions about the perfumed Orient.
Rene, however, still denies verisimilitude, even as revelations are made. “Today I finally learned to tell fantasy from reality. And, knowing the difference, I choose fantasy.”
The play ends with Rene, wearing the Madame Butterfly costume in his prison cell, reenacting the character’s operatic death scene in full costume and makeup.
As for Sara Ryung Clement’s costumes, they are lavish and beautiful, especially those in the opera scenes. Ralph Funicello’s sets focus on the prison and courtrooms, chambers backgrounded by vividly hued opera settings, apartment interiors and Song’s residence. Josh Epstein’s lighting is a crucial element of the scenic design, while Andre J. Pluess and Jeff Polunas’ sound design blends Chinese and traditional opera music, attuned to the story’s themes.
Multiple award winner Annie Ye (also an Ovaction Award nominee), is Choreographer. Wigs and Makeup is supervised by Gillian Woodson; Wardrobe Supervisor is Jyll Christolini, and Stage Manager is Moira Gleason. Honorary Producers are Geoff & Valerie Fearns and Michael Ray.
Ms. Doukas, as Rene’s fairly self-deluding wife, adds another layer of tender humanity, and Rene’s other “almost” mistress, Ms. Hansen, brings a bright, witty energy to their brief but sexy meeting .
Mr. Blakely, as Marc, as well as Ms. Hansen, both performing multiple supporting roles, contribute admirably to the show’s playful spirit. In addition, Melody Butiu is excellent as the committed Communist, Comrade Chin. The ensemble — Annika Alejo, Yoko Hasebe, Andres Lagang and Sophy Zhao — are also remarkably tantalizing in their dances. Stephen Caffrey, as Rene’s old friend and consul Sharpless, also playing Tuolon and the judge, round out the cast ensemble with phenomenal portrayals.
Playwright Hwang layers many nuanced themes in this beautifully written story, including sexual identity, male-female relationships, foreign policy during the Vietnam era, the puritanism of China’s Cultural Revolution, and the traditional Peking Opera. The acting, in whole, represents what every play should have, what every relationship should have—consummate concomitants, dedicated and true. In this case, the company of “M. Butterfly” exceeded every expectation, executing a masterful work of art, and has the ultimate recommendation!
The show continues through June 8th at South Coast Repertory, and is approximately two hours in length, including one intermission. Regular performances are Tuesday through Sunday’s, including matinees on Saturday/Sunday at 2:30pm. Please visit https://www.scr.org/ for full information and tickets.
The Show Report
Photos by Jordan Kubat/SCR