By Massimo Iacoboni
Substantially reworked by its author for this second Broadway run, M. Butterfly – a smash it in 1988 – made a star of actor B.D. Wong, while earning David Henry Hwang the distinction of being the first Asian-American playwright with a major production on the Great White Way.
A great part of that success came from the wildly improbable, but nevertheless true, real-life events that inspired the play, namely the 20-years-long love affair between Bernard Boursicot, a young and inexperienced French Embassy clerk stationed in Beijing in the early 1960s, and his wily mistress, Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu.
The original production enjoyed a distinct advantage over the current one: the story, as unbelievable as it was, was largely unknown to the American public. Its shocking denouement sent shivers down the spines of unsuspecting audiences in a way that the current incarnation couldn’t possibly aspire to achieve. Now an infamous and widely known international scandal – as well as a play and a film – the secret behind M. Butterfly is hopelessly out of the bag: the mistress was a man.
This simple fact, on its own, might have been enough in 1988 to scandalize (and titillate) the average Broadway theater-goer, but also to leave more sophisticated audiences quite unmoved.. were it not for a single, undeniably shocking detail: the Frenchman, after 20 years of intimate relations with his mistress, had failed to uncover the truth!
Fast forward to 2017. In the USA gay marriage is the law of the land, and the fight for transgender rights has torn the country apart. Expressions of gender fluidity are now common currency, and even celebrities, as well as former Olympic athletes, are free to undergo sex reassignment procedures without fear of becoming pariahs (well.. sort of).
How can a famous play that explores – and exploits – sexual conventions of an age gone by, be brought back to life to connect with, and tantalize, a contemporary audience? This production wagered on Julie Taymor – the formidable director behind the eternally successful production of The Lion King – who apparently encouraged Mr. Hwang to rework his script to incorporate previously unknown, but equally bewildering, aspects of the story.
In this incarnation of the story, the mistress is Song Liling (Jin Ha), and she no longer lives her life as a woman. To comply with the pronouncements of an increasingly repressive regime that abhors all expressions of individuality, she dresses as a man – which, undeniably, she biologically is – but pretends to be a woman dressed as a man, for the benefit of our hapless anti-hero, Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) who, supposedly heterosexual, can now finally make sense of his scandalous infatuation. Get it? If it sounds too weird and complicated, well, it is. It also happens to be true because, believe it or not, that’s more or less how things actually went down back in Beijing in 1964.
This adherence to reality, embodied by skeletal sets and matter-of-fact lighting, robs the play of some of its erstwhile glamour. Gone is the grandiose escapism of our collectively imagined Celestial Empire. Gone is the lavishness of the late, great, Eiko Ishioka’s sets and costumes. From the very first scene Ms. Taymor sticks to a spare, utilitarian aesthetic: in a bare jail cell, under a single, naked light bulb, a barefoot Gallimard writhes in his chair, attempting to make sense of his awful predicament. We hear faint screams and hurried footsteps, as the Frenchman, in the throes of shame, tries to conceal his face from the audience.
From this jail cell the recollection of the events that led to his demise – specifically, espionage charges – are related affectingly by Mr. Owen, who acts as both protagonist and narrator. He manages to make us believe the impossible, all the while engaging in a high wire act that requires him to be by turns needy, arrogant, artless but, ultimately, absolutely baffling.
In his efforts to make us accept his self-delusion, however, he does not get great help from Mr. Ha’s physical appearance, which bears none of the delicate attributes we are asked to believe the beautiful Song Liling availed herself of in order to ensnare the gullible Gallimard. Mr. Ha’s narrow-hipped and wide-shouldered, distinctly masculine frame makes it hard to suspend disbelief.
While not much is wrong with this production, we couldn’t help but yearn for the magical theatricality of its first version. Not until the final, beautifully acted and very moving scenes, did we feel true, dramatic energy fill the stage.
M. Butterfly is at the Cort Theatre until February 25, 2018. Written by David Henry Hwang; Original music by Elliot Goldenthal; Choreography by Ma Cong; Directed by Julie Taymor. Cast: Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Clea Alsip, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Enid Graham, Thomas Michael Hammond, Cole Horibe, Jason Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Erica Sweany, John Leonard Thompson and Erica Wong.