BWW Review: An Embrace of Dangerous Illusions, Stunningly Portrayed: M. BUTTERFLY at Everyman
Our local Equity companies don't always march in lockstep, but sometimes they do. Case in point: this spring Center Stage presented us with The White Snake, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. Now Everyman Theatre has presented us with David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. To which I say: keep 'em coming. Audiences, including this critic, love to get away from the familiar.
And not just for novelty's sake. The story of this play could not possibly be told in any familiar way, because it's about the encounter with the unfamiliar: a married French diplomat's affair with a Chinese opera star. That would be enough of an immersion in the unknown, but far more strangeness than that is involved. The diplomat enters the liaison with many notions that he knows are questionable, for instance the opera star's similarity to Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which he self-consciously fetishizes while acknowledging the possibly illusory nature of the correspondence. Those are what a former Secretary of Defense called Known Unknowns. But it turns out there are some huge Unknown Unknowns for the diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), because of blinders he wears as a Westerner, as a heteronormative male, as a member of an insular foreign policy elite, even as a believer in the world-view of Madame Butterfly.
Gallimard's feckless plunge into this pool of unknown unknowns will cost him his marriage, his reputation, and his freedom, which the audience can see from the outset, as the play opens with him nearly at the end of his story, in a prison cell. Even then, does he care? Should he care? These are the questions Hwang leaves us with at the end.
Along the way to this conclusion, Hwang and Everyman are going to show us some things we probably have not seen before: an evening at the Chinese opera, a Cultural Revolution-era red flag-brandishing ballet a la The Red Detachment of Women, the clubby, snootily dissolute world of the French diplomatic corps. And we witness again, at second hand, the hubris and folly of the Vietnam War. We will also hear a lot of Puccini and a lot of Miles Davis, two artists it is hard to hear too much of. And it will all be done with smashing theatricality. Plaudits are due to, among others, lighting designer Jay Herzog, set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen, choreographer Chu Shan Zhu, whose work collectively evokes a place of lovely, dangerous differences from our own.
But the biggest credit for this spectacular feat must go to director Vincent M. Lancisi and the cast, particularly Nelson as Gallimard, and Vichet Chum, who takes on the physically, vocally, and kinetically challenging role of Gallimard's inamorata, Song Liling. Which is not to ignore Christopher Bloch's genially cynical turn as Gallimard's treacherous foreign service supervisor, Tuyet Thi Pham's puritanical Communist spy-handler, Deborah Hazlett as Gallimard's wife Helga, nearly but not quite clear-sighted enough for her own good, and Katharine Ariyan's Renee, a younger woman with whom Gallimard also takes up, breathtaking in her carnal directness. (Pham and Chum are pictured above.)
I asked myself at one or two points whether all this production was being lavished on too small an object, and concluded, after thinking it through, that this was not the case. Though the deluded M. Gallimard and his morally abysmal lover are in no way in and of themselves proper subjects for epic treatment, the grinding together of civilizations, of which their affair is a tiny feature, and the obliviousness with which the West has traditionally approached that grating encounter, not to mention the human capacity for self-deception which is properly a perennial subject of drama, both justify the scale of the show.
It has been widely publicized that in the runup to this production, Messrs. Lancisi and Nelson seized an unexpected opportunity to meet with the gentleman who was the real-life pattern for M. Gallimard, who now resides in an assisted living facility near Rennes. It is impossible to tell whether that meeting yielded insights that were useful in what, after all is Hwang's play, which was first staged (and won the Best Play Tony and the Pulitzer) in 1988. Despite a two-page writeup in the program, very little of substance comes across in terms of the nature of the man, which may chime with Gallimard's arguable hollowness. But it is written that Nelson was busy noting his subject's "gestures, mannerisms and speech patterns." So it may be that the meeting bore some actual fruit in this production. This much is clear: whatever it may or may not owe to the historical figure's own personality, Nelson's portrayal is authoritative: all the glibness of a would-be mandarin who cannot quite pull it off, a lyrical self-awareness that does not quite go far enough, and a touch of madness. Every line rang true.
In about a month's time, just about when this production closes, the play will be revived on Broadway with Clive Owen, and I'm sure that staging will deserve the accolades it receives. But it will have to be a pretty impressive production to top this one.
M. Butterfly, by Henry David Hwang, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, through October 8, at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette Street, Baltimore, MD 21201. Tickets $10-$65 at www.everymantheatre.org or 410-752-2208. Nudity, lethal violence, adult language, adult situations, smoking. Not suitable for pre-teenagers.
Photo credit: ClintonBPhotography