Regional Reviews: San Francisco
M. Butterfly Flies Again in a Spectacular Production
I first saw M. Butterfly in 1988 at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre with B. D.Wong portraying the opera star and David Duke as the French Diplomat. I also saw the National Touring company production, with Alec Mapa taking over the role of the opera star, as well as the earlier TheatreWorks production.
M.Butterfly is set during China's Cultural Revolution and is based on the true story of Song Liling's (Francis Jue) twenty-year affair with French diplomat Rene Gallimard (Mark Capri). Gallimard did not know the Chinese opera star was not only a man but a spy for the Chinese government. Gallimard was arrested for treason by the French government, and the play opens in 1989 with the diplomat in prison telling his story in flashbacks.
M. Butterfly relates very strongly to Puccini's Madame Butterfly, and some of the popular opera arias are included in the musical. An intelligent man having had a twenty-year affair and not knowing his lover was a man does strain credibility a bit. Gallimard tells the audience that he had never seen his "girlfriend" naked: "I thought she was very modest. I thought it was a Chinese custom." Since the diplomat loved the opera so much, he fell in love not with the person but a fantasy stereotype. It takes all kinds to make this world of ours.
Hwang's play is more about male-female relations, using East-West stereotypes as a medium. It reveals the Western sarcasm of Asian nations and the Western nation just underestimating these countries. The play is very apropos of the current involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Francis Jue (on Broadway originated the role of Bun Foo in Thoroughly Modern Millie and recently in Pacific Overtures) is superb as Song Liling. He is slyly coquettish as he walks around creating arm gestures and striking puffed-up and demure poses. He is sublimely graceful as the Chinese opera star. He does an amazing transformation before the audience between the second and third act as he takes off the make-up and becomes a shallow and cocky man.
Mark Capri (in Los Angeles Light Up the Sky, Sherlock Holmes, Equus at Pasadena Playhouse) plays the role of Gallimard as a naïve young man who believes he has been victimized. His monologues are wonderful as he gives a poetic, romantic dream view of men, women, and Western and Eastern cultures. He firmly believes his love for his Chinese lover was pure.
Darcy Brown-Martin (Loose Ends, Cowboy in His Underwear) is admirable as Helga, Gallimard's wife. She portrays the character as living in a delusional state, ignoring her husband's affair. Jennifer Clair (Long Christmas Ride Home at the Magic) gives an animated performance as Renee who also becomes a mistress of Gallimard. Noel Wood (Shakespeare in Hollywood, The Last Night of Ballyhoo at TheatreWorks) gives a brisk performance as the arrogant womanizer Marc. Mia Tagano (Nicholas Nickleby at Cal Shakes) gives an insightful performance as the Cultural Revolution interrogator, and Kevin Blackston (won the SFBATCC award for Violet at TheatreWorks) is effective as the French ambassador and the Judge.
Kate Edmunds has designed an elaborate, two-tiered set with a huge Chinese fan in the background. The ramp from the fan to the stage is a flowing marvel. The lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt beautifully accomplishes the various moods of the drama. Fumiko Bielefeldt's costumes are wonderfully detailed, both in the Chinese opera and the kimonos worn by Song Liling. Cliff Caruthers' sound design, especially the arias from Puccini's opera, is fantastic. Director Robert Kelley has devised a superb production of David Henry Hwang's provocative drama.
M. Butterfly plays through September 17 at Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets, call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.
TheatreWorks' next production will be the West Coast premiere of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Dessa Rosa at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts October 4th through October 29th.