Even those who didn’t pay attention in Natural Science 101 know that butterflies aren’t born that way. They develop through stages: egg; larva; pupa; and, finally (showtime!), shimmering, iridescent adult. In 1988, David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly was celebrated as a modern classic—a stylish and dislocating fable of erotic and cultural confusion between East and West. And yet director Julie Taymor believed there was room for M. Butterfly to evolve. Preparing the play for its first Broadway revival, Taymor asked Hwang for rewrites and extra material to amplify secondary female characters and to give more shading and agency to Song Liling (Jin Ha), the Chinese opera diva who seduces—and spies upon—French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen). So does this Butterfly fly higher and shine more brilliantly than it did 30 years ago?
For better or worse, I don’t have firsthand knowledge of John Dexter’s original production to make comparisons, but I found M. Butterfly 2.0 to be a fascinating, provocative series of boxes and surfaces, constantly shifting and reconstituting itself to beguile our senses and sympathies.
That’s due to the cunningly framed and slippery text—which remains fresh and punchy—but also Taymor’s polymorphous handling of it. First, the play: Hwang based his script on the true story of a French diplomat in China who had a 20-year affair with a Chinese opera star he thought was a woman. Hwang’s fictionalized account is bracketed as the prison confession by Rene, who finds himself a national laughingstock for failing to realize he was sleeping with a man pretending to be a woman. With his flair for self-dramatization and his fancy prose style, Rene is a relative of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert—only this time, the narrator is the prey.
Assigned to Beijing in 1964, Rene attends the Chinese opera and falls under the spell of Song, the beloved leading woman. Blinded by Orientalist illusions of the “inscrutable,” exotic East, the married Rene falls in love with Song, somehow ignorant of the crucial fact that all roles in Chinese opera are played by men. An extramarital affair follows, during which Song gleans information about French and American foreign policy in Vietnam. Song passes the information along to a Communist minder, Comrade Chin (a fierce Celeste Den). When Rene’s unwitting treason is exposed, he’s revealed as a grotesque fool both in the embassy and the bedroom. Did he secretly know that Song was a man? Did Song love Rene, despite the lies and emotional subterfuge? Can these men transcend gender and nationality to transform themselves—butterflylike—into higher beings?
Taymor’s intense, painterly staging complements the shifting perspectives and cinematic quick cuts of Hwang’s script by deploying a small army of modular screens. Attached to tracks that span the stage, these rectangular units are wheeled on by actors, who position them to create the claustrophobic walls of Rene’s gray cell, various interiors in Beijing and Paris, or spectacular scenery at the opera—with huge, grimacing masks. In the second act, there’s a Communist ballet and brutal depiction of Song’s “rehabilitation” (read: torture) accompanied by screens bearing the bold, heroic imagery of Soviet Realist propaganda. Working with set designer Paul Steinberg and lighting designer Donald Holder, Taymor creates a dazzling series of tableaux that mesh perfectly with Hwang’s heightened, poetic lines.
Although Taymor is most acclaimed for her daring visual approach and blending performance styles from around the globe, her ability to cultivate actors is also strong. Owen balances a practiced ease with wolfish, raffish sexuality with something more wounded and vulnerable: an overgrown boy who never lost his crippling awe of femininity. His final descent into Jean Genet levels of sexual panic and identity loss is arresting and raw. A relative newcomer, Jin Ha does a fine job aping a Western conception of Eastern womanhood, while slipping in acid notes of criticism for the imperialist insults he and his countrymen have to endure. His gender illusion is not always complete, but his characterization is finely etched and layered.
Although a period piece from the ’80s, M. Butterfly remains relevant as long as nationalism and transphobia continue to dominate our cultural narratives. Toward the end of the play, Hwang lets Song mount the soapbox in court, contemptuously denouncing the sexism and racism that allowed him to fool Rene for so long. “As soon as a Western man comes into contact with the East—he’s already confused,” the defiant Song tells a perplexed and prurient French judge. “The West has sort of an international rape mentality toward the East,” which he defines as “her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes.” Although Song is talking about intercultural prejudices from the past century, the words ring painfully true today, no matter where you alight on the gender spectrum.
Why You Should Go: Clive Owen is unexpectedly vulnerable as a Frenchman undone by his passion and cultural prejudices.
138 West 48th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Midtown
Through Sunday, February 25, 2018
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