Also see Tracy's review of Living Out
Appearances can often be deceiving, as French diplomat Rene Gallimard discovers the hard way in David Henry Hwang’s provocative piece, M. Butterfly. Currently running at Arena Stage, M. Butterfly is both emotionally gripping and visually stunning.
M. Butterfly made its debut in Washington in 1988. It went on to earn Hwang a Tony award and the play itself was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The piece is a memory play that recounts Gallimard’s affair with a charismatic Chinese opera star. All the while, parallels to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly are drawn. However, gender roles are confused as well as reversed and, unlike Madame Butterfly’s American soldier, it is actually the French diplomat who suffers in the end.
Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the play contains a number of powerful elements – power, political intrigue, love and betrayal. All of this is presented under a veil of sensuality that is hard to ignore. It is communicated in the actors’ delivery and body language as well as in the set and lighting design.
Donald Eastman created the stark platform on which the action takes place. His work is coupled with Robert Wierzel’s excellent lighting design. The lighting creates impressions of rooms while a shower of petals that fall from the ceiling at various times serves as a reminder that there can be beauty in an otherwise painful story. These items work in unison to create the perfect backdrop for this unique tale. Other then some minor props and set pieces, no accoutrements are needed. The basic design allows the story to tell itself unencumbered.
Broadway alum Stephen Bogardus tackles the role Rene Gallimard. Bogardus takes this character to the heights of bliss and the depths of despair. His performance is extremely powerful. As his dishonest lover Song Liling, J. Hiroyuki Liao is outstanding. Liao straddles the line between love and treachery without ever going over the top. If there is one negative to point out, it is Liao’s overuse of hand gestures. At times these seem appropriate but there are moments where they don’t fit and they become distracting. However, these two actors create a very believable couple. The connection is obvious and the heat emanating from their sexual attraction can be felt up to the rafters.
The cast also includes some fine performances from Terrence Currier as Gallimard’s shifty boss and Kelly Brady as a number of female roles. Washington theater veteran Marty Lodge gives a fine performance as Gallimard’s old school friend and Brigid Cleary is wonderful as Gallimard’s older wife.
Audiences should be aware that there is nudity in this play. However, it is not gratuitous. Instead, it serves to highlight a key dramatic moment.
Arena’s production of M. Butterfly is a beautifully formed piece. It is a living, breathing work of art that should not be missed. M. Butterfly runs through October 17th at Arena’s Fichandler Stage.
Arena Stage – The Fichandler Stage
Rene Gallimard: Stephen Bogardus