The themes that define M. Butterfly seem especially relevant in light of the issues of gay marriage and American arrogance in the international arena at the fore of national discussion today.
Arena Stage’s 2004-05 season opener comes with an inescapable warning. A large sign hangs above the ushers’ smiling, elderly faces, cautioning each theatergoer of the full-frontal nudity that will occur during David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Everyone observes the sign, a few laugh, a few instantly turn to observe the reactions of others, but no one leaves.
M. Butterfly, a Tony Award winning play, was originally released in 1988 and received critical acclaim for its exploration of both sexual boundaries and American misconceptions of the Far East. A challenging piece for any director, Tazewell Thompson stages its revival beautifully, ensuring that none of its original resonance is compromised in his production.
French diplomat Renee Gallimard (Steven Bogardus) is stationed in Communist Beijing. During his tour, he falls in love with Song Liling (J. Hiroyuki Liao), who Gallimard believes to be the perfect woman. Renee, transfixed by Song’s performance of the death scene from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, begins a playful flirtation with her, which soon becomes a passionate affair. The play revolves around the fact, obvious to the audience but not to Renee, that Song is a man playing a woman, which is standard practice in traditional Chinese theater. When Song’s deception becomes clear to Renee, the truth devastates his perception of love.
Bogardus puts forth a strong performance as Renee. Clothed in a simple flannel bathrobe throughout the entire play, Bogardus plays, in essence, a far-too-American Frenchman. Witty, confident and endearing from the outset, his performance is reminiscent of the paradigmatic Gene Kelly with his optimistic American air. However, Bogardus gradually sheds Kelly’s idealistic self-assurance as Renee’s reality falls apart.
It is Liao’s portrayal of Song, however, that steals the show. Confronted with a complex character, Liao delivers Song’s lines with subtle irony while still retaining his believability as a typical woman. His words are accompanied by the body language of women in traditional Chinese theater, which, though at times distracting, reinforces the stereotypical role he is forced to assume. As Song, he is dressed in Chinese robes and full makeup for the majority of the play, providing a strong visual contrast to Renee’s simple bathrobe.
As a performance, M. Butterfly is refreshingly modern. The stage is barren except for the occasional chair and the space is mostly defined by overhead lighting. Scenes change, accompanied by sound effects and by varying the shadows cast by rafters and fans. The music is a montage of different elements, blending Asian rhythms, orchestral harmonies and the traditional opera of Madame Butterfly. Song’s final transformation incorporates a jazz element into the score. These details are acute but not abrasive, allowing the focus of the performance to stay on the characters while simultaneously creating and challenging the space of the stage. Deemed by some as pretentious, the lack of conventional setting prevents the background from diluting the social message.
M. Butterfly addresses sexual and cultural stereotypes outright in a sometimes comic, but always persuasive manner. In one wonderfully ironic exchange, Renee asks Song why men always play women in traditional Chinese theater, to which he replies, “Because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act.” It is an artistic critique that uses Madame Butterfly, arguably the most famous Asian play in America, to showcase American delusions of Chinese culture. Introspective and fearless, M. Butterfly confronts difficult social themes, ushering in a new way of thinking and opportunely, a new season at the Arena Stage.