New York City Theater
The initial shock is gone: the sexual surprise that triggers David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony winner, “M. Butterfly,” has become part of the culture. Since beans have been spilled, what to do? In director Julie Taymor’s revival, politics take center stage, with a result as curious as it is confounding.
What’s lost is the tender romantic naïveté of forbidden love, replaced by harsh realities. Characters are diminished and what was achingly subjective becomes blatantly objective, a backhanded “compliment” to a world where forces of progress are stymied by misplaced nostalgia for the past.
We’re on the cusp of still another disastrous war, this time with Vietnam. The French, burdened with that benighted country, glean information about American intentions from their diplomats, among them Rene Gallimard who then passes them on to a Chinese spy.
When his heart is stolen by said spy, Song Liling, a Chinese opera star, Gallimard is doomed. His marriage is over, his sanity compromised; arrested for espionage, his end is ignominious. Politics, not passion is his undoing.
Beginning in his cell, Gallimard narrates in a meta-theatrical style that has him frame the tale in the form of a play-within-a-play, with asides to the audience. “M. Butterfly” (the title is, at once, provocative and mysterious) intersperses the plot with colorful scenes from Peking Opera productions and Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
For this revival, Hwang has re-written parts, notably a graphic description of the sex act. Gained is a prurient look-see; lost is ambiguity as we shift from personal to national deception.
This has always been a work that pits East vs. West. Song asks, “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it, the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man?” Though that theme was in the original 1988 production also (“M. Butterfly” won the Best Play Tony Award), we see it now more as a prosaic power struggle between gullible Westerners and calculating Easterners.
Clive Owen is tense and knowing as Gallimard, with Jin Ha strong and strident as the manipulative Song Liling. Enid Graham as Gallimard’s wife, Agnes, Murray Bartlett as his friend, Michael Countryman as the calculating French ambassador and Celeste Den as the conniving Comrade Chin give sterling support.
Ma Cong’ choreography is, at times, exciting, a slice of what used to be exotic, but is now familiar and, in many contemporary ways, threatening, as are the underlying transgender issues. “Politics again?” asks Agnes. “Why can’t they just hear it as a piece of beautiful music?”
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 10, 2017