Theater

David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” Travels East to Explore Delusions of Gender

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Non-spoiler alert: If you saw the original production of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly on Broadway in 1988, and you go into Julie Taymor’s new production at the Cort Theatre, don’t expect to see the same play. In fact, you may find yourself wishing the Cort had provided seat belts, because if your fondness for the original runs high, your feelings may be in for a very bumpy night. Not that Hwang’s provocative and probing play has lost any of its fascination in this extensive reworking: If anything, the explicitness with which Hwang has retooled his troubling story only enhances its intellectual richness. True, a little of the mystique of what used to be a tantalizing psychological romance has vanished, but in its place lie the political and sexual ramifications, now fully spelled out, that were always part of the story’s gripping resonance. And Taymor’s production, stark and harsh for all its lavishness, serves Hwang’s new take on his material with the same effectiveness John Dexter brought to the eerie, enclosed world of the original.

For that earlier production, the brilliant Japanese designer Eiko Ishioka created a miniature Forbidden City of sliding screens and moon gates that gave the conflicted lovers a magical refuge in which to play out their clandestine affair. Explanations were limited; the real-world intrusions of fact that disrupted and finally destroyed the idyll were kept to an unnerving minimum. We left impressed but still puzzled, with questions not wholly answered. At the Cort, mystery is kept to a minimum and all questions are answered often even before we’ve begun to formulate them. From the outset, the huge, swiveling gray panels of Paul Steinberg’s set tell us that the world of these mismatched lovers is a grim, dangerously unstable place in which no idyll ever goes undisrupted; romance withers visibly under the white-hot glare of Donald Holder’s lights.

M. Butterfly’s star-crossed lovers are a klutz and a courtesan: the French diplomat René Gallimard (Clive Owen) and the Chinese opera diva Song Liling (Jin Ha). An underling at the French Embassy in Peking, Gallimard is an unabashed romantic, clumsy with women, who has been smitten with Orientalist fantasies since he first saw Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at age twelve. (Allusions to the opera’s music and libretto permeate the play.) Trapped in a drab marriage of convenience to an older woman, Agnes (Enid Graham), he sees himself as a helpless drudge until he meets Song at a diplomatic reception. The two begin an intense friendship that blossoms into an affair: Gallimard is reluctant until Song explains that he is actually a woman who has been raised as a male from earliest childhood.

This improbable tale, which Gallimard buys (and which was not in the play’s original version), derives from the real-life person on which Hwang’s drama is based: Bernard Boursicot, an extremely young and very minor employee in the French Embassy, apparently continued to believe in his lover’s female identity for the duration of their relationship. The outré anatomical details of how his partner accomplished this deception, revealed at their trial, have now also found their way into Hwang’s script.

Hwang’s revision pulls his story out of the shadowy romantic twilight where it originally thrived into the harsh light of fact for two strong reasons. First, it brings his fictional tale closer to the actual case, giving Gallimard’s hard-to-swallow illusion a documentary grounding: Boursicot, who unlike his fictional avatar was apparently bisexual (he had male and female lovers throughout his life), continued to maintain that his Chinese partner was female until faced with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

This persistence in delusion gives Hwang the opportunity to open what might be called an intellectual second front in his drama, making Gallimard’s self-image the virile white man dominating the fragile Chinese lotus blossom a reflection on the whole history of Western attitudes toward Asia, with particular reference to the attitude which America brought to its disastrous intervention in Vietnam. That misadventure is doubly linked to M. Butterfly’s action: The quagmire we cavalierly waded into was a former French possession that France had abandoned to postcolonial chaos; and the classified documents that Gallimard passes to the Chinese in return for access to his lover often deal with American strategies and troop movements in Vietnam. (It’s unclear to what extent this aspect of the play meshes with historical fact, since Boursicot continued to pass classified documents to the Chinese for several years after American troops left Vietnam.)

In daring to divest M. Butterfly of its dream world, Hwang and Taymor have made its critique of the West both more openly caustic and somewhat more schematic than it originally was a romantic haze always breeds more ambiguity than a floodlight. But in many ways this is salutary, compelling audiences to think about the story’s resonances rather than drifting pleasantly away on them. (It also raises thoughts of a possible countertheme: Hasn’t the East, too, had its fascination with aspects of Western culture? One thinks of Kurosawa’s twin passions for Shakespeare and Ed McBain.)

Taymor strives to compensate for the dissipation of the alluring haze with heightened image and spectacle. Though her cast is not appreciably larger than the original’s (eleven as opposed to ten), it gives the effect of a big, flamboyant musical rather than an intimate drama. When Gallimard, Song, or other characters are focused on as individuals, they’re often isolated in a small rectangle of light against the vast gray walls; in between such moments, the ensemble troops on as a seemingly vast chorus of diplomatic partygoers, Chinese opera performers, or, when the Cultural Revolution arrives, choreographed Red Guard marchers straight out of Madame Mao’s favorite work, The Red Detachment of Women. The lavish showiness, though impressive, is disorienting. It keeps moving us away from Gallimard’s passion, into the chaotic larger world where no individual’s passion counts for much in the anarchic scheme of things.

That widened context partly explains why Owen’s Gallimard often seems a hapless lost soul rather than a decisive one, either as diplomat or as lover. The revised text, too, makes him more openly naive and more of a bumbler than in the original. Luckily, Owen, with his long moose-jaw face and wearily hopeful eyes, can be sexy and charming even while portraying a hopeless doofus like this. Regrettably, the deck is stacked against him: Even the sexiest and most charming actor alive couldn’t make the reworked Gallimard of this no-nonsense world heroic in his delusion. Understandably, he steers clear of pathos, while Jin Ha, opposite him, eschews the tantalizing delicacy that, in the original, made B. D. Wong so fascinating, and John Lithgow’s starry-eyed adoration of him so heartbreakingly believable. The result has a distinct flavor of its own, drier and sharper than its predecessor.

Those who go in full of nostalgia for the earlier M. Butterfly may resent the change, but others may find it refreshing as well as startling. “Playgoers naturally murmur,” wrote George Bernard Shaw, “when something that has always been pretty becomes painful; but the pain is good for them, good for the theatre, and good for the play.” He was talking about Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s interpretation of Ophelia’s mad scene  apparently one of the earliest realistic-psychological approaches to what had previously always been a daintily stylized version of female lunacy. I can’t say that M. Butterfly constitutes a received idea to the same extent as Hamlet, which leaves me of two minds about the change from a romance resonant with implications to a treatise in which those implications are fully spelled out. I miss the romance, with its teasing ambiguities, but as things are these days with China building up for a trade war (and simultaneously cracking down on free expression) while our crazy commander-in-chief and the equally crooked nutjob in Pyongyang menace each other with the nuclear option a treatise might serve us better.

M. Butterfly
Cort Theater
138 West 48th Street
212-239-6200
mbutterflybroadway.com

Through February 25

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