Theater Review: M. BUTTERFLY (South Coast Rep)

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by Lawrence Lucero on May 23, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


M. Butterfly asks the audience to accept a love story in which a French career diplomat takes a Chinese opera diva as his mistress for 20 years, unaware that the diva is actually a man. Truth being stranger than fiction, the story is based on a real life affair that David Henry Hwang adapted into a breakout 1988 Tony winner — an ambitious, stimulating, frustrating play, now receiving a rather disappointing production at South Coast Rep.

In the mid-1980s, former civil servant Rene Gallimard (Lucas Verbrugghe) sits in a Paris prison cell after being convicted of treason. Speaking directly to us, he recalls happier times involving his very favorite opera Madama Butterfly and his real-life “Butterfly,” a Chinese opera diva named Song Liling (Jake Manabat). While living and working in China in 1966, the married Gallimard falls for Song; soon, they begin an affair (one of the show’s best scenes is at the top where they meet cute and Song challenges the white man’s views — fantasy, really — of an opera about a submissive Asian woman). When Song Ling is not what she seems, Gallimard’s world quickly spirals out of control and he’s left alone and bereft, questioning his carefully constructed reality.

Opera is rife with high drama, full-blown tragedy and artistic deception. In this way, it’s a perfect backdrop for M. Butterfly, in which Hwang skillfully uses Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly to spin a decades-long illusion created by the Chinese government with a schlubby French diplomat as its pawn. As with most timeless operas, this story is in many ways unbelievable, but its absurdity grounded in reality proves a major draw.

Overall, it’s a strikingly powerful look at how one’s passion and desperate search for love can lead to flights of fantasy allowing that person to only see and believe what he wants instead of reality. Delusion makes it easy for deception to occur, especially in the hands of an actor who is adept at playing a woman. The role of men and women and the difference of Eastern and Western perceptions fuels Rene’s delusion.

Sadly, director Desdemona Chiang utilizes inconsistent staging which actually tones down the operatic nature of the script. I’m certain that it needs more than naturalistic staging; as it stands, the operatic style of the writing doesn’t really take off, and Chiang’s lack of creativity only serves to point out the play’s flaws. It’s a fascinating story, but lacked a point of view. One of the odd staging choices had Gamillard downstage while the opera he speaks of takes place well upstage behind him, when the memory screams to be swirling around him in prison. And why were the dancers at the Peking Opera coming off like a community ballet troupe which lacks cultural authority?

In this context, I did not believe a word of Mr. Verbrugghe — who is neither nerdy nor big nor having a crisis of faith. Along with Aaron Blakely, who lacks distinction as Gamillard’s carousing friend Marc, Verbrugghe seems to be floundering for meaning. Worse, the chemistry is off between the two leads, despite Manabat’s elaborate makeup, stunning costumes and mincing mannerisms. Song does not need to look drop-dead beautiful to our eyes; he is a man in woman’s guise. But he must seem irresistible to Gallimard, and that doesn’t play here.

Nothing can stop the great Stephen Caffrey, whose blustery matter-of-factness as a French ambassador to China, and Gallimard’s superior at the embassy in Beijing, is electrifying.

The designers are the winners of this production. All things to do with Song are lovely and aesthetically appealing in the style of the Orient, and her ribbon dance, choreographed by Annie Yee, is a highlight. Song’s costumes by Sara Ryung Clement are alluring, colorful, fanciful, and tactilely inviting. Her apartment set by Ralph Funicello is equally appealing and epitomizes our expectation of what a performer’s room in China would look like. The sleek and streamline modern blues and reds of the show’s linear proscenium contrasted nicely with Song’s living space.

This production has style but it’s not stylized, which makes M. Butterfly feel like a plain old complicated romantic espionage. The attempts to shock at the end — with Song stripping naked in court — feel gratuitous instead of shocking.

photos by Jordan Kubat/SCR

M. Butterfly
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on June 8, 2019
for tickets, call 714.708.5555 or visit SCR

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