Inspired by the true case of an affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu from 1960 – 1986 which led to a trial for espionage, Hwang’s problem in 2017 was that the story has become so well-known that the reveal at the end of the play is no longer a surprise. As a result, Hwang has worked to come up with new elements taken from the true case to make the play more startling for audiences that already know the tale. Director Julie Taymor who has in the past done wonderful work with exotic material (The Transposed Heads, The Green Bird, The Lion King) does not give the play as much help as it needs, making it much too literal for its own good.
We first meet Rene Gallimard, former French attaché to the embassy in Beijing, in 1986 while he is serving a sentence in Paris for treason. He tells us his strange tale: Since the age of 12, he has been passionately in love with Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly and its story of its Chinese hero Cio-Cio-San, “the feminine ideal,” and her American lover Lieutenant Pinkerton. Stationed in China, Gallimard attends a soirée at the home of the Swiss ambassador at which the entertainment provided is the death scene from Madame Butterfly enacted by Song Liling, star of the Chinese Opera. When the beautiful, alluring Song appears interested in him Gallimard who has never been attractive to women is smitten with his “Butterfly.”
In the 1988 version of the play Gallimard appeared not to know that the female roles in the Peking Opera were traditionally played by men which was rather unbelievable but which increased the fairy tale element of the story. Now (as in the true events) Song tells him that though female, his parents wanted a male and so he was brought up as a boy. Since all Song’s documents were made out this way, “he” never corrected them, but if in fact he is a she. Gallimard believes he is loved by “the perfect woman,” and they begin an affair.
However, as Song reminds him, one of his fantasies is “the submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man” and that “only man knows how a woman should act.” His fraternizing with the native Chinese, leads Gallimard to be promoted to Vice-Consul in charge of intelligence, believing that as “the Orientals will always submit to a greater force,” the Americans will win in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the self-deluded Gallimard is wrong about Vietnam and unaware that Song is in the pay of the Chinese government. Both of these facts lead to the ultimately tragic ending.
Among the changes in the new version is the Brechtian device of interrupting the action to remind us we are watching a reenactment which begins to destroy the delicate fabric of the play. The trial scene now includes anatomical descriptions of their love making (based on fact) that are probably best left to the imagination. Also added is a scene from the Chinese opera, The Butterfly Lovers, in which a woman disguises herself as a man in order to be near the man she loves, which is a little too close to the story that Song tells Gallimard. There are various English, American and Australian accents (Gallimard’s older wife is from Down Under) but no French even though most of the characters are from Paris.
While the original production had beautiful diaphanous sets, here Paul Steinberg has designed large ugly silver panels that continually regroup, at times covered by hideous wallpaper, that move alarmingly jerkily and look like they are going to fall down at any moment. Other scenes have beautiful Chinese designs which only make the silvery scenes that much uglier. The sequences of the Chinese Opera choreographed by Ma Cong are both lavish and exciting in the costumes by Constance Hoffman. While Elliot Goldenthal is credited with original music and soundscape, it is not made clear what is traditional Chinese music and what is new.
Playing a man who could not get a date, the handsome, virile Owen seems a strange choice. As Gallimard, the usually suave and masculine Owen has chosen to play him as awkward, though he seems less a man uncomfortable in his own skin than an actor who hasn’t found the center of his role. As opera star Song Liling, newcomer Jin Ha is a fine actor but is never convincing as the “most beautiful woman in the world.” Ha seems to be laughing at Gallimard at all times which occasionally destroys the illusion. Michael Countryman as Gallimard’s superior Ambassador Toulon and later the judge at his trial in France plays these roles as extremely British which is continually confusing.
Playing Gallimard’s wife Agnes, Enid Graham creates a believable portrait of a woman who leads her own life while enjoying the advantages of being Mme. Gallimard. However, her Australian accent is distracting in this setting among the French in China even though we have been told she originally hails from there. As the male chauvinistic playboy Marc, Gallimard’s best friend from his school days, Murray Bartlett (of Looking fame) is extremely obnoxious rather than playing a contrast to the rather shy and retiring Gallimard. Celeste Den as Song’s Chinese government operative is intrusive as she is most likely meant to be.
If you do not know the story or have not seen M. Butterfly before, you are more likely to be enamored of this new production. The story remains compelling particularly in this age of troubled East-West relations. As a metaphor for the West’s misunderstanding of Asian politics and customs, M. Butterfly continues to dramatize the underlying themes of ancient stereotypes that remain with us still today.
M. Butterfly (through January 14, 2018)
Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.mbutterflybroadway.com
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission