Also see Sharon's review of The Confessions of Doc Holliday
Having never seen M. Butterfly, I didn't quite know what to expect of East West Players' revival of David Henry Hwang's play. Or, rather, I thought I knew what to expect. I expected a dated, Crying Game sort of venture which would be no fun at all now that I knew the secret. What I got, however, was a fascinating musing on gender relations, cultural misconceptions, and one man's utter undoing.
It starts innocently enough. Arye Gross plays Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who apparently missed the memo saying that men play all of the female roles in Chinese opera. Gallimard missed a lot of other things too. Through flashbacks with over-played, caricatured supporting players, we learn of his underdeveloped sex drive and his loveless marriage. And - through much more vivid, realistic flashbacks - we also see how Gallimard fell head over heels for a Chinese opera singer, and how terribly he treated her simply because he could. Through a wonderful fence-walking performance, Gross simultaneously makes the audience hate and pity Gallimard. In flashback, we see Gallimard's reprehensible behavior and detest him. And yet, in the present, Gallimard comments directly to the audience acknowledging what a louse he was. There's a little bit of a reformed sinner in Gallimard, and Gross is not afraid to play both sides of the character.
Of course, Gross isn't the only actor who has to play "duality" in M. Butterfly. As Song Liling, the man-playing-a-woman who captures Gallimard's heart, East West Players has Alec Mapa, who understudied B.D. Wong in the original Broadway production. In the first act, Mapa's performance is concerned wholly with being a convincing woman. It is only partially successful. (The fault is not with Mapa, but rather with a wig and makeup that make him look unfortunately like Liza Minnelli.) But the character of Song Liling is also playing a double role, with which she eventually ensnares Gallimard - alternating between the stereotypical shy, traditional, "Oriental girl" (whom Gallimard finds irresistible) and a Westernized, educated, forward, more modern woman (whom Gallimard finds threatening, but equally attractive). That Mapa might not be altogether believable as a woman misses the point; what matters is not that Gallimard was taken in by Song Liling's face, but that he was taken in by the promise of who she was.
The second act of the play belongs to Mapa. While the first act focussed on what it was that made Gallimard fall for Song Liling, the second act is concerned with why Song Liling deceived Gallimard. And here, too, there are two answers for everything, and neither Hwang nor Mapa offers a simple explanation. But it is when the deception is over, and Song Liling removes the kimono replacing it with an impossibly sharp suit, that Mapa takes over the play. No longer the woman - delicate or otherwise - he is now a young man, bold, sneering, and incredibly cocky. It is here that his work in the first act seems so good, because although he might not have been believable as a woman, it seems impossible that this arrogant, heartless, cruel bastard is the same person as the delicately manipulative Song Liling of act one. There is a scene in which a nearly naked Mapa - having revealed Song Liling's gender in the most direct manner possible - is half draped in the pink kimono of earlier days. And one's eyes keep darting back to his masculine leg sticking out from under the robe as though, after everything, it is still impossible to believe the transformation.
Gross holds up his end of things in the second act as well; although once the truth is revealed, Gallimard seems more solidly in the role of "hapless victim" than "jerk who brought this on himself." Gross slowly paces Gallimard's downfall, so that his ultimate end is not only believable, but really the only choice left for him.
It is a moving revival of a complex play, and certainly a fitting production for East West Players' David Henry Hwang theater.
M. Butterfly runs at East West Players' David Henry Hwang Theater in Los Angeles through July 18, 2004. For information, click www.eastwestplayers.org.
East West Players -- Tim Dang, Producing Artistic Director -- presents M. Butterfly. By David Henry Hwang. Directed by Chay Yew. Set and Costume Designer Yevgenia Nayberg; Lighting Designer Jose Lopez; Sound Designer John Zalewski, Property Master Ken Takemoto; Stage Manager Winnie Y. Lok.