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m butterfly courtA theater-lover just doesn’t spring from the ground fully-formed reciting Shakespeare and high-kicking it to “Oklahoma”.  It takes years and years of watching and re-watching plays to fully grasp the theatrical medium and to cultivate one’s taste and preferences; I started my love affair with the theater at age 10, and until now, in my fourth decade, I’m still confounded by some of the plays I see.  Growing up in Manila in the early 1990s I saw several productions of David Henry Hwang’s ground-breaking  M.Butterfly about the strange, real-life, decades-long love affair between a married French diplomat and a transvestite Peking Opera performer who turned out to be a spy for the Chinese government. Strange because the diplomat claimed in the thirty or so years he was with his mistress, he never saw her fully naked and therefore never knew she was actually a man.  Hwang’s writing was brilliant, heady and train-stopping: heavily stylized incorporating elements of both Western and Peking opera, it tackled huge, intriguing themes around the notion of masculinity, the Western view at that time of Asians and Asian culture,  the accumulation and exercise of power.  The staging of the productions I saw with their impressive use of choreography, music, and visual spectacle were some of my initial indelible experiences with the uniqueness of theatrical storytelling.  I haven’t re-visited the play in decades until a couple of weekends ago when I saw Charles Newell’s new production at Court Theatre- nearly 20 years later, M. Butterfly’s storytelling and construction is still riveting and resonant. Despite some reservations I have with this particular production, I think the play wears it’s age well, even now in the “Asian century” where China is the ascendant superpower, just like an elegant Shanghai matron in a black dress, pulled-back hair, and jade jewelry.

M. Butterfly is one of the most meticulously stylized plays you’ll ever encounter: it starts with the diplomat Gallimard in his prison cell in Paris awaiting trial for treason.  The play incorporates flashbacks, arias from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly (which Hwang cleverly inverts because in his story, the Asian mistress, Song Liling, is deceptive, wily, and shrewd unlike the innocent and pure Cio-Cio San), Peking Opera choreography, shifting points of view.  Hwang successfully creates a world that is hazy and dreamy, always standing at the edge of the precipice of truth-telling but never falling.  The key to M. Butterfly is to embrace its stylization because ultimately it is mostly a memory play, and at times even a nervous-breakdown play.  Newell understands this and he and his design team embrace the show’s stylized elements with a bear hug and more –  Keith Parham’s lighting design is sensual and menacing, with beautiful use of shadows and shadings;  original Broadway choreographer Jamie H. J. Quan’s Peking Opera sequences seem otherworldly;  Lydia Tanji’s costume design is lush and vivid.  Newell’s tone for the most part is always heavily emphasized, underscored, and marked with an exclamation point: it sort of works in Sean Fortunato’s  new take on Gallimard- from the beginning, he is bombastic, anxious, fidgety, seemingly teetering on the brink of insanity, which doesn’t create any doubt in the audience that Gallimard is delusional and kinda cuckoo in embarking on this affair. With Fortunato’s portrayal we know that he knows what he got himself into, but he tries to justify his actions.   But Newell’s other artistic decisions are problematic imho: the humor is broadly drawn (especially in Terry Hamilton’s French ambassador caricature) which clashes with the steely delicacy of the piece;  Gallimard’s relationship with his childhood best friend and imaginary conscience Marc (an expectedly terrific Mark Montgomery who seems to be having a ball)  is more explicitly homoerotic than I’ve seen in the past so we don’t doubt at any time that he is a closeted homosexual. The ambiguity that I think is an essential aspect of any staging of M. Butterfly (did Gallimard really know Song was a man? Did Song really love Gallimard or was he playing a role? Did Gallimard realize what he was telling Song was treasonous but their complicated power dynamic made him not care?), and which is evoked by the similar murkiness of the affair and its protagonists, is missing. I also feel some of the political aspects of the relationship are papered over by the emphasis on the drama.

Fortunato is very, very good in this less –ambivalent portrayal of Gallimard: he effectively runs the gamut of insecurity, delusion, boorishness, and desperation.  Nathaniel Braga is also very, very good as Song,  believable as both a Chinese girl and as a tough yet effeminate man who has been through the atrocities of the Cultural Revolution.  Their individual performances are impressive; together the chemistry seems to be lacking. Braga is really beautiful and mesmerizing as Song, but you never see the desire and attraction in the eyes of Fortunato’s  Gallimard.  But maybe that’s part of Newell’s and Fortunato’s conception of the role- that Gallimard was more in-love with the concept of the Asian woman in his semi-unstable mind, rather than the actual flesh and blood one lying in his bed?  Among the ensemble, Karen Woditsch, looking like a melancholy Jane Lynch, is superb in the small role of Gallimard’s ignored, unloved older wife Helga, whom he married just to get ahead in the French diplomatic service. But the pleasure of any M. Butterfly production still lies in Hwang’s sharp, intelligent writing. Even now in the supposed Asian century when Western countries know the culture, capabilities, and aspirations of China and other Asian countries much better, the stereotypes of femininity, exoticism, and submissiveness that Hwang intended to destroy with this play still hold true in certain pockets of our culture.

M. Butterfly is at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., until June 8.

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