Theater Review: M. Butterfly, Chasing Its Own Reality

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From M. Butterfly at the Cort. Photo: Matthew Murphy

When David Henry Hwang’s memory play M. Butterfly made its Broadway debut almost 30 years ago, it took home the Tonys for Best Play, Best Direction, and Best Performance by a Featured Actor (B. D. Wong in a career-making turn as the Chinese opera singer Song Liling). It also ran for almost two years — a remarkable feat considering its thematically ambitious, stranger-than-fiction story. The play is based both on Puccini’s romantic (and deeply problematic) tragedy of an opera, Madama Butterfly, and on the real-life affair between the Beijing opera singer Shei Pei Pu and French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, who for 20 years believed his male lover to be a woman.

Now the diplomat and the diva — the Western man and the “delicate Chinese girl,” the Traitor and the Spy — return to Broadway in M. Butterfly’s first revival, under the direction of Julie Taymor and featuring a script that Hwang has brushed up for 2017. It’s an exciting prospect: Taymor’s gift for sweeping spectacle combined with a story whose complex web of gender, racial, and international politics feels sharply suited to our current climate — plus a star turn for an excellent actor (Clive Owen as the Boursicot analogue, Rene Gallimard) and a rich, exciting opportunity for a super-talented newcomer (recent NYU acting grad Jin Ha making his Broadway debut as Song Liling). So why do the results feel strangely uneven?

Despite compelling performances by both leads — especially Ha, whose Song is a consummate actor, layers of carefully cultivated performance around an iron core whose only real law is survival — both play and production wander into clunkiness and confusion. The story is told almost entirely in flashbacks. We first meet Owen’s Gallimard in the 1980s in a prison cell. He’s been charged with treason for passing French state secrets to Song, who was working for the Mao regime throughout their relationship. As an ugly, naked light bulb flickers above Gallimard’s head, he retreats into memory and fantasy: How did he get here? Who is — who was — this lover that he called his Butterfly, his “perfect woman”? How can the world, where he’s become a fool and a laughingstock (“The life of every social function in Paris!” he jokes bitterly), ever understand him? Gallimard needs someone to tell him that he’s more than the sum of his white, Western, male prejudices. He’s a complicated individual with a complicated story to tell! He desperately wants our sympathy, our absolution.

Taymor has remarked that Hwang’s play “is written cinematically … There are 30-something scenes in the first act alone.” M. Butterfly flits quickly among settings and times, orchestrated by Gallimard as a kind of maestro of memory. We follow him from school in France as a young man to his diplomatic posting in Beijing in the 1960s (where he eventually meets Song), then back to France after the disastrous “American war” in Vietnam. But no matter where we are geographically, we’re also always in Gallimard’s mind — a place where he can speak to us across the fourth wall, beg us to disregard certain details, and to “try to see this from my point of view” (as Song starts to claim his own rights to the story, showing us scenes that Gallimard would rather forget, our primary narrator becomes more and more prone to such pleading).

As M. Butterfly goes along, however, Hwang and Taymor often struggle to convey the specific reality in which events are occurring. The boundaries, already permeable, grow blurry. What of Marc (the swaggering Murray Bartlett), Gallimard’s school friend who embodies the kind of aggressive, cocksure manhood that awkward Gallimard has never been able to achieve? Marc pops in throughout the play to make a variety of crass pronouncements (“You’re always gonna stay a virgin until you learn to take what you want” or “You thought you were about to plow an exotic Chinese babe. Ni hao!”), but is he really there? It’s unclear whether Gallimard is recalling actual encounters or whether Marc simply wanders in and out of his recollections — the “white devil” on his shoulder, his id personified.

And later, after the climactic trial of the two protagonists, when Gallimard encounters Song and Song slowly strips off the man’s suit he wore as he gave testimony, while Gallimard waits in terror unwilling to stare at the naked truth … Well, where are we? Owen and Ha throw themselves into the heightened stakes of the scene — the physical vulnerability, the recriminations and bitterness and confused desire — but they feel unrooted in space and time. “You’re only in my mind! All this is in my mind!” shouts Gallimard, but as an audience, we’ve never quite been taught how to draw the line between Real and Memory, or Memory and Fantasy, or Fantasy and Fear. It’s all been in his mind, but even in that context, some events are more real than others, and the struggle to parse which are which can start to prove emotionally distancing.

I can’t help wondering whether my frustrations might paradoxically have been eased by a production whose scenic world actually dared to do less rather than more. Paul Steinberg’s set is a multitude of panels and screens, constantly rearranging themselves to form everything from Gallimard’s tiny prison cell to Song’s apartment to the lavish backdrops of the Beijing opera. Taymor has called the set a “Chinese puzzle box” representing all the “facets of [Gallimard’s] brain — of his imagination.” A great idea, here awkwardly executed. The panels often don’t quite fit together cleanly, and transitions seem effortful — hardly the elegant, reconfigurable mind palace that Taymor seems to have envisioned.

It’s telling that the production’s most beautiful image occurs without a single panel onstage: At the top of Act Two, the curtain rises to reveal Song, who has just told Gallimard that (s)he is pregnant, standing in a nightgown as Gallimard kneels with his head against his lover’s belly, fractured shafts of light streaming diagonally across the stage’s back wall. It’s a kind of Annunciation image, and the stage around the two actors is practically empty. In this tableau, the space seemed to breathe, and I could feel my brain relinquishing its need for definition and instead more readily embracing the porousness of Hwang’s text. Memory plays are tricky things — they need to be able to shift as quickly and seamlessly as dreams. In this instance, empty space proved more mutable, and therefore more powerful, than any complex spectacle.

Still, one thing M. Butterfly isn’t is dated. Song’s analysis of the West’s relationship with the East as a kind of “rape mentality” (“Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes”) still feels horribly relevant, and Gallimard’s confession — “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man” — still makes you cringe with its concise summation of patriarchal fantasies. Here, though, Hwang’s observations feel suspended — like little islands of incisive commentary in a stream that hasn’t entirely found its flow. Owen and Ha are doing their best to anchor M. Butterfly, but like its namesake, the show often seems to be floating just above something truly powerful, looking for a place to land.

M. Butterfly is at the Cort Theatre.

Theater Review: M. Butterfly, Chasing Its Own Reality