Sunday, May 26, 2019

“M. Butterfly”: A Love Story or Misbegotten Love?

David Henry Hwang: “The reason men played the role of women in Chinese opera is because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”. If I might add my two cents, I might say that only a man would have the chutzpah to make such a statement.

South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa is rolling out the revisited classic, "M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang. It is the last show of the season on the Segerstrom Stage and is playing through June 8th.

Lucas Verbrugghe and Jake Manabat
Words like drag, gender bending, homosexuality, homosexual, lesbian, gay rights, cross dressing, unisex, LGBTQ you name it are etched into our collective vocabularies. But in the mid 60’s nothing of the sort was discussed in public.

Hwang’s play “M. Butterfly” is a fictionalized account of a 1986 article Hwang read in a news article describing a 20 -year relationship between French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot and an opera singer he believed to be a woman named Song Liling. 

According to Hwang, ‘the article sparked the idea for his new play “M. Butterfly”. From there the playwright took those facts and bought them to new heights creating his own answers to the questions so many had about the diplomat and his lover’.

The play went to Broadway in 1988 and was nominated for numerous awards including the Tony for BD Wong who played Song. In 1983 the two men were arrested on charges of espionage.

Hwang recently went back to take another look at the piece before the 2017 Broadway revival and made a few changes. That revival opened Oct. 6th 2018 and closed January 14th 2018 after having played 19 previews and 93 regular performances. 

Recently, my friend and I took the 405 to Costa Mesa to have another look as well. 

Being the great story- teller he is (“Golden Child”, “Yellow Face”), Hwang weaves a tale of illicit love and foreign intrigue. Blending cultural, racial and gender politics with ease and pushing the limits of reality, almost leaning on the side of fantasy, it was natural for most to watch it play out in disbelief.

The story opens with Gallimard (Lucas Verbrugghe) in his prison cell in France. From his vantage point he relives the twenty years of his life as a diplomat and lover to Song Liling (Jake Manabat) the Chinese opera singer and spy he believed to be a woman. 

Lucas Verbrugghe, Stephen Caffery and Nike Doukas
Told in flashback, he shares with the audience his insecurities around and with women, his lackluster marriage to a wife he did not love, his love of Puccini’s grand opera, “Madama Butterfly” and the fact that his superiors in the Embassy condoned his affair, no egged it on. Song, in the meantime, working as a spy for the Chinese government. He was getting the information back to the Communists who in turn let him live a lifestyle of comfort not too common among the general population. Finally both fell out of favor and René was sent back to France, Song was incarcerated for homosexuality and the scandal brought disgrace and ruin to both.

While the story within the story is unraveled, zigzagging in and out of their clandestine relationships with doubts and with dueling battles for each man to tell his side, one has to wonder how Gallimard could not know.

In a TMI outburst at the court hearing during their trial, Song describes how he was able to pull off the sex act to satisfy his lover. (He also strips to the altogether to convince once and for all that he is a he.) That information (how he was able to perform the sex act), graphic as it was, had to make sense to the then willing parties. As graphic as it was, it answered, to some degree, the nagging questions about Gallimard’s gullibility. Yet his and our ability to separate reality from fantasy was never arrested.

Jake Manabat, Melody Bunu and Lucas Verbrugghe
Gallimard stayed in the relationship. As the playwright shows over and over again the stereotypical and submissive Song in his/her stereotypical Eastern training satisfied and built his/her lover’s ego enough to remain loyal over time.

With so much of their lives paralleling, domineering/submissiveness, eroticism and male cruelty in Puccini’s ‘Butterfly’ the play follows the same plot lines (with the exception of the ending) and themes as it plays out to Puccini’s music with sound design and original music by Andre J. Pluess.

As staged by Desdemona Chiang, Hwang’s thoughts are shared when he notes that having the first Asian- American and woman directing this production ‘it might bring new insight and perspectives to the work’. From this reviewers point of view I’m not quite sure what that would look like. Having seen the play over more than thirty years ago and this only the third time, most of what I remember hasn't seem to have changed.

Lucas Verbrugghe and Jake Manabat
The questions of incredulity and skepticism, homosexuality, gender bending, East/West cultures and youthful curiosity still filtered into my brain. Unfortunately, I found the intimacy, struggles and tensions between the two men lacking in chemistry. The relationships when intimate were cautious and reserved at best. Where was the passion?

Manabat’s pretense as a woman never convinced, although I wasn’t the one needing convincing. Even with Hwang’s statement mentioned above, Song’s feminine wiles looked too masculine to satisfy. Verbrugghe’s René didn’t fit the bill to my satisfaction as the lover in a ‘love at any cost’, lover. His mannerisms and passion never showed through. Could be the direction or in reality they both knew the truth and lived out a fantasized homosexual partnership?

The ensemble has Nike Doukas as René’s discontented wife Agnes, giving us an insight into their lackluster and loveless relationship. She and Juliana Hanson come on as a pair of pushy gals convincing us of René’s lack of sexual experience.

Lucas Verbrugghe and Jake Manabat
Aaron Blakely makes a brief appearance mouthing his aria in Butterfly as Pinkerton, the American bastard in Puccini’s opera who thought marrying a Geisha might satisfy his needs while he was abroad in the East, never having to live up to his responsibilities as a man and as Western culture dictates.  

He also plays Marc, Rene’s old friend trying to goad René into going on the town to meet some gals. He's a bit over the top and comes off as a real jerk. Stephen Caffery is Toulon, René’s boss with just a bit more life than the rest helps move the story along as he passes information along to René. 

That is not to say that the production values are not up to the usual standards of SCR. Ralph Funicello’s sets of sliding screens and scrims show the emptiness of Gallimard’s cell and just a peek away Song’s well appointed, in reds and blacks, apartment and other locations.

Sara Ryung Clelment's costumes are contemporary East/West with the exception of Song’s gorgeous kimono and elegant dresses. John Epstein’s lighting is perfect singling out each location and Annie Yee’s choreography catches the mindset of the revolution with youngsters marching and waving the Communist flags in unison.  

Their story was and is as controversial, unconventional and sensational in the 60’s as it was in 1988 when it first premiered. Even to this day it remains a puzzle. The story that he met the male opera star, Shi Pei Pu, 47 at a German diplomats function, when he was in his 20’s is a fact. They became good friends and the real Song invited the young accountant soon to be diplomat, to his house. As the story goes they had sex for the first time shortly thereafter. That still mystifies.  

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Imagine convincing yourself that the man you lived with for twenty years, persuaded you that he/she was a woman, supposedly had your child and strung you along for 20 year and, was in fact a spy and a man (and not the man who came to dinner) and you still held on?

“You see? They toast me. I’ve become patron saint of the socially inept. Can they really be so foolish? Men like that — they should be scratching at my door, begging to learn my secrets! For I, Rene Gallimard, you see, I have known, and been loved by … the Perfect Woman”.

 Some things are, in fact, still stranger than fiction.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through June 8th
Organization: South Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 764-708-5555
Production Type: Drama
Where: 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA.
Ticket Prices: Start at $31.00.
Venue: Segerstrom Stage
Photo: Jordan Kubat

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