Regional Reviews: San Francisco
M. Butterfly, Snow Falling on Cedars and
M. Butterfly is set during China's Cultural Revolution and is a true story based on former French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and his Chinese lover of 20 years, a former diva in the Beijing Opera named Shi Pei Pu. Both were sentenced by the French court to six years in jail for spying on China. David Henry Hwang changed the names of the two characters to Rene Gallimard and Song Liling. One does wonder how such an educated man could have been hoodwinked for 20 years without discovering his lover was really a man. However, that is of little consequence since this is a drama exploring social, cultural and sexual themes. The Custom Made production, directed by Stuart Bousel, masterfully illuminates the playwright's deconstruction of Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly in a smart production that draws the audience into the story.
It had been a long while since I had seen the provocative M. Butterfly. I saw two productions in New York with John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, and David Duke and Francis Jue. Mr. Jue later reprised the role in a TheatreWorks production several years ago.
Sean Fenton is stellar in the role of Song Liling. His amazing transformation toward the end of the two-hour forty-minute production as he takes off the make-up to become a shallow and cocky man is spellbinding. Rik Lopes excellently plays the role of Gallimard as a naïve man who believes he has been victimized. His monologues are pleasing as he gives a lyrical, romantic dream view of men, women, and Western and Eastern cultures.
The rest of the cast rounds out the production very well, particularly Karen Offereins as Liling's boss Comrade Chin. Xanadu Bruggers is very good as Gallimard's wife Helga. Kira Shaw gives a lively performance as Renee, who becomes a mistress of Gallimard. Kai Morrison adds humor as the arrogant womanizer Marc. Paul Stout is very good as the French ambassador and the Judge.
Director Stuart Bousel allows the actors to address the audience on three sides of the stage. Sometimes the actors sit among the audience members to add realism.
Set design by Sarah Phykitt, lighting design by Brendan Aanes, and costume design by Jen Pokas all make the fantasy more vibrant and appealing.
M. Butterfly plays through April 30 at Custom Made Theatre, 1620 Gough Street at Bush, San Francisco. For tickets go to www.custommade.org.
Snow Falling on Cedars' story is of passion between two young school friends, another romance between adults, and discrimination during and after World War II which leads to a murder trial that opened the book and also serves as its structural element.
The play begins during the first week of December 1954, as snow is falling outside of the courtroom in the village of Amity Harbor, Washington. Kabuo Miyamoto, an American citizen, is on trial, charged with the murder of Carl Heine, a fellow fisherman whose body was found early on the morning of September 16. Miyamoto denies that he had anything to do with the death.
Ishmael Chambers, who was romantically involved with Hatsue Imada, wife of Miyamoto when they were teenagers prior to the war, looks on the trial dispassionately. He is now the editor of the village newspaper and has no love for the Japanese since he was physically and psychically maimed fighting against them in the South Pacific.
Kevin McKeon has done a good job in transferring the bestselling book to the stage, although sometimes the scenes become confusing since there are constant changes from pre-war to the trial, and scenes on another part of the two-tiered stage showing the investigation. Some are unnecessary, such as a South Pacific battle scene when Ishmael is wounded. One would wish it were tightened a little with more focus, especially on the opening courtroom scene.
Director Robert Kelly has a superior 12-member cast playing multiple roles. During the trial Tim Chiou as Kabuo Miyamoto captures the unwavering silent man accused of murder. He successfully brings out the man's frustration of being a loyal American who fought against the Japanese as an American soldier. He is commanding when arguing for his father's land, which was stolen by the greedy Etta Heine, played excellently with a German accent by Anne Darragh. She morphs wonderfully from a person of deep-rooted predisposition to two warm-hearted mothers.
Maya Erskine is captivating as Hatsue. She transforms from a free-spirited child in a lovely romance with a young Ishmael to a woman in defiance of bigotry to a despondent detainee of the Manzanar Japanese camp and finally to her new life with Kabuo. It's an amazing performance. Will Collyer admirably plays Ishmael, both as the open-hearted teenaged boy and the bitter war veteran.
Edward Sarafian gives a brilliant performance as the defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson. He shows humanity throughout the whole performance even in a small conversation with the defendant's father on how to plant strawberries. Mark Anderson Phillips gives an absorbing portrayal of Alvin Hook the prosecuting attorney. Kevin Rolston and Molly Benson are splendid in various roles. Josiah Polhemus, Will Springhorn Jr., Mia Tagano and Randall Nakano are impressive in their various roles.
Andrea Bechert's set is multipurpose and sweeping, going from a court room scene to a black cedar forest, a fog-bound harbor with the mast of a boat showing, and a California desert where the Manzanar camp was located.
Snow Falling on Cedars plays through April 24th at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org. Coming up next is [title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen. It opens in Mountain View on June 1 and runs through June 26.
Photo: Tracy Martin
Four actors rose above the manipulated language of the New York playwright, especially in the 10-minute "Intermission" sequence and the excellent tirade by David Sinaiko ranting on the Seven Ages of Man.
The 85-minute piece opened with Lady Grey's 40-minute lecture piece based on nothing. She could be the alienated girlfriend of Eno's other piece, Thom Pain (based on nothing). She told the audience of lost loves and terrible loneliness between lovers, and about her painful childhood "show and tell" experience.
Director Rob Melrose did well to keep the staging simple, using only one chair and effectively using Heather Basarab's dim lighting. Danielle O'Hare charmed the audience by maintaining eye contact in this non-quite-dark little theatre. She was heartfelt in her monotone delivery which was still hard to comprehend since she was not projecting through most of the long, wordy play.
The second piece in the trilogy was the entertaining "Intermission." Following a brief intermission, the audience returned to the 49-seat house to see four actors sitting in seats facing them. There were two couples, one young (Galen Murphy-Hoffman and Danielle O'Hare) and the other middle-aged (David Sinako and Gwyneth Richards), who had just watched the first act of a play called The Mayor. The four discussed what they had been watching and how the pretense of theatre affected them individually. They talked about death and aging, and the older husband talked about a dog he once had. The husband of the younger couple looked completely bored by the discussion and even the play itself. All four actors gave admirable performances.
David Sinako returned for the roguishly over-the-top monologue "Mr. Theatre Comes Home Different," a seven-minute harangue based on Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man. He kept telling the audience that he was acting, and he felt bitter that he must perform a death scene before the onlookers.
Lady Grey (in ever lower light) closed on April 10th at the Cutting Ball Theatre, Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco. For more information on this theatre go to www.CuttingBall.com. This completed their 2011 season.