BWW Review: ArtsWest's M BUTTERFLY - A Story of Passion and Intrigue Without the Passion or Intrigue
In David Henry Hwang's play "M Butterfly" there's a few things you can take away. First there's the actual historical comparison to the real relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a Peking opera singer. Second there's the cultural lesson of Westerners predilection to view Easterners in a certain, subservient light. And finally, there's the love story between a man trapped in a world and profession that used him and another man who claimed he didn't know his lover was also male. All those things should add up to a fascinating evening, unfortunately the current production at ArtsWest is told to us in such a bland and static way that the evening is just plain boring.
We initially see the play through the eyes of Rene Gallimard (David Quicksall), a French diplomat recounting his life while sitting in a jail cell, serving time for treason. He recalls serving in China and working his way up the ranks of the diplomatic core and meeting Song Liliang (Tom Dang), a performer at the Peking Opera with whom he forms a romantic relationship. Song insists to Rene that while most performers in Chinese opera are men in drag, he says that he's actually a woman dressed as a man performing as a woman. Rene accepts the lie and the two remain seemingly happy but what he doesn't know is that Song is also reporting secrets he's learning from Rene back to his government that are swaying the current military conflict.
The play could be a riveting one but there's no chemistry between the two leads, so I had a hard time imagining why they were together in the first place. Quicksall plays Rene as a whiny, insecure dreamer who just accepts what's thrown at him. Not a very sympathetic character. And to top it off, he begins the play with a kind of narrative delivery as he presents the story but never gets out of it, making him very one-note and unengaged. Dang falls into the same trap of being one-note. He too shows no chemistry with his scene partner and I would say only shows derision but that would imply an emotion. It really just comes across as a constant haughtiness throughout. Even when interacting with others in the play their delivery remains constant so the play stays on such a static tone that it's likely to lull you to sleep. Very surprising since I've seen so much better from both of these actors.
There are a few moments of verve from other actors in the show. Marianna de Fazio as Rene's wife Agnes has a few scenes and she manages to find levels in her character but still gets nothing from Quicksall. Similarly, Jason Marr brings in a blustering best friend but only manages to point out how passive his scene partner is.
Director Samip Raval keeps the staging moving along but the action is one thing, we also need the emotion of the piece and that was completely lacking. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give ArtsWest's production of "M Butterfly" a "wake me when it's over" NAH. A story with potential, unrealized.
"M Butterfly" performs at ArtsWest through February 17th. For tickets or information contact the ArtsWest box office at 206-938-0339 or visit them online at www.artswest.org.