EXCERPTS FROM THE REVIEW
Below are excerpts from the September 21, 2017 Metro Weekly review of M. Butterfly.
David Henry Hwang’s East-meets-West drama M. Butterfly (★★★★) twists and coils so cleverly, the play might be dangerous in uncertain hands. There would seem to be countless ways to mishandle the Tony-winning fusion of Butterfly lore and the stranger-than-fiction true story of a French diplomat embroiled in a scandalous affair with a gender-disguised Chinese performer.
Yet, Everyman Theatre’s well-calibrated new production, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi, succeeds with a skillful elegance that belies just how complex the power dynamics are between the fallen diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), and his Beijing mistress, Song Liling (Vichet Chum).
“A compelling story in the hands of Nelson, a rapturous storyteller who forges a practically conspiratorial kinship with the audience.”
Although both lovers relate their desires and schemes to the audience, the play proceeds predominantly via Rene’s narration, delivered from within a prison cell. It’s a compelling story in the hands of Nelson, a rapturous storyteller who forges a practically conspiratorial kinship with the audience, right from Rene’s first rose-colored recollection of meeting Liling at the ambassador’s residence in Beijing.
Rene happens to be in the audience that night to see Liling perform the death scene of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. As the opera’s Ciocio-san, Liling is an exquisitely delicate and vulnerable blossom. Rene declares her “the perfect woman.” Little does he know her truth. Or does he? Having first encountered her performing a fictional version of his fantasy of total romantic supplication, he almost can’t help himself. Immediately, and compulsively, he pursues her.
It might first appear that Rene is a self-satisfied chauvinist, who cheats on his wife, Helga (Deborah Hazlett), and mistreats his mysterious mistress, a star of the Peking Opera. But, like the upper hand in Rene and Liling’s fraught relationship, sympathies shift sharply and swiftly as Cold War-era espionage and coordinated deception enter the plot, which unfurls over decades.
The real secret between the couple, suggested beautifully by Nelson and Chum’s rapport, is that gender might have no bearing on Rene and Liling’s true feelings for each other. Each wants and needs something so desperately (or selfishly), they’re willing to overlook glaring inconsistencies in the packaging to get what they want.
Their dance is bittersweet, and Nelson and Chum find truth in it, while rendering full-bodied portrayals of two inveterate liars. Hazlett, as Rene’s fairly self-deluding wife, adds another layer of tender humanity, with Katharine Ariyan bringing a bright, comic energy to her brief turn as Rene’s other mistress. Ariyan and Yaegel T. Welch, both performing multiple supporting roles, contribute admirably to the show’s playful spirit.
Led by Lincisi’s sensitive direction, and Nelson’s astute performance, the production tells a complete story that, as much as it dissects stereotypes about warring nations and cultures, reveals a man who’s recognizably, woefully at war with himself.