Through dance, movement, music and puppetry this 60-minute intimate spectacle depicts a tempestuous romantic triangle laden with symbolism. There are oblique allusions to Madame Butterfly, the tragic tale of interracial love in Japan, that’s perhaps best known from the Puccini opera. John Arthur Long’s short story Madam Butterfly was published in 1898. It was based on stories told by his sister who lived in Japan and is the basis for these stage adaptations.
The show’s creator and director Ramesh Meyyappan also plays a character named Nabokov. The Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov was a renowned butterfly enthusiast. Naomi Livingstone plays Butterfly, a kite maker who hunts, kills and mounts butterflies. She meets Nabokov and they fall in love. Chris Alexander plays a customer who visits Butterfly’s shop and falls in love with her. Their relationships are ultimately marred by violence and tragedy.
Mr. Meyyappan, Ms. Livingstone and Mr. Alexander all superbly realize their characters with their fluid physicality and expressive facial expressions. In her pivotal role, the intense Livingstone is quite haunting. Alexander is complexly amiable. Meyyappan is compellingly low-key. The trio expertly performs Darren Brownlie’s vibrantly moody choreography.
Meyyappan’s conception includes more arresting imagery in addition to the prevalent butterflies. These include stylized sequences involving rape, giving birth, soaring kite flying, and dreams. His graceful direction melds all of the narrative and presentational elements into an eerie and moving production.
A miniature surrealistic representation of one of the characters and a creepy child resembling one of the characters are features of Gavin Glover’s dazzling puppet design.
With its black floor strewn with white patches, small hanging lanterns, shelves with kites and glass jars, and an antique desk, Neil Warmington’s evocative set design warmly recalls an old-time curiosity shop. Mr. Warmington’s simple and pertinent costume design has Butterfly in an Asian-themed red floral and black ensemble. The men wear khakis, button down shirts, suspenders, two-tone shoes, as well as hiking boots.
Kate Bonney’s lighting design boldly conveys the emotional tones and highlights the events with its precise hues of brightness and dimness. The score by composer David Paul Jones finely complements the work with its swirling melodies that are an engaging cross between Erik Satie and Philip Glass.
Meyyappan was born deaf in India and grow up in Singapore. He went to live in England where he was educated in theater and then moved to Scotland where Butterfly was first performed. This New York City premiere is presented as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theatres.
Butterfly’s originality, stirring performances and technical artistry give it the quality of an enchanting adult fairy tale.
Butterfly (through May 14, 2016)
2016 Brits Off Broadway Festival
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission