November 9, 2002

 

M. Butterfly

reviewed by
Lynn Trenning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To find out more about this co-production of M. Butterfly, please visit charlotterep.org and syracusestage.org.

For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

When the audience arrives at the Charlotte Repertory performance of M. Butterfly, the mood is already in progress. Four graceful dancers clad in gray perform Tai Chi-like movements against an Asian backdrop. It is a telling set. The stage wide illustration shows the back of an Asian woman who gazes at an empty space beside a stand of trees. The scene is imbued with a sense of longing, and various levels of backlighting bring her back to us throughout the show.

The play, written by David Henry Hwang in 1988, shows its age only in its now politically incorrect usage of the words "The Orient." It begins in 1986, in a prison cell in France, where Rene Gallimard narrates his twenty-six-year story as a French diplomat in love with Chinese singer Song Liling, beginning during the early days of conflict in Viet Nam.

As Gallimard, Allen Fitzpatrick appears as comfortable in his role as he does in his boxer shorts. He confides his deepest feelings of inferiority to the Booth Playhouse audience as though we were all at a slumber party. Though he is a decent-looking man, we believe him when he describes himself as voted "least likely to be invited to a party." Though his wife seems a fine woman, we donít blame him a bit for grabbing the opportunity of an extramarital affair with Song Liling, who, in his eyes, is a perfect woman. Heck, we only live once, and Gallimand succeeds in convincing the audience that as a regular guy, living in this particular time and place, he would be a fool not to take an Oriental lover.

Song Liling, played by J. LaRue, is Gallimardís Madame Butterly. The fluidity of her movements is perfectly eastern. At first outspoken, her demeanor retreats to one of a shamed and shy girl. As such, she captures Gallimardís heart. Gallimard equates her to the Butterfly in Pucciniís opera. He is driven to pin the heart of the butterfly and make it writhe on the needle. Sounds cruel, doesnít it? Yet as presented by Gallimard, it seems a wish borne on curiosity, rather than a desire to create pain.

Itís possible to concentrate on only one of many deeply engrained aspects of this complicated play. There is east versus west. There is inferior versus superior. There is man versus woman. There is the question of how much someone will give up for another person. There is the elusiveness of happiness. The diametrically opposed subjects get interwoven and unavoidably entangled, creating ironies that become profound lessons.

This is a masterful play, for its depiction of what people want, and how they get it. The human element of bewildered revelation laced with palpable irony makes the story touching, as well as intriguing. The Foreign Devil is a victim of his own desires. "The uglier the man, the greater the want," the playwright intones. And the more he will give up in the process of attainment.

The agile set serves accents the mood. Vertical louvers and floor to ceiling pillars, all lacquered black and red, set the parameters of action. The sofa in Song Lilingís apartment is a rich brocade, into which she can fold, and emerge like the Butterfly she is. The play is a co-production of The Rep and Syracuse Stage, and is directed by Robert Moss. Go see this play.

Lynn Trenning, November 9, 2002

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