EXCERPTS FROM THE REVIEW
Below are excerpts from the September 11, 2017 Broadway World review of M. Butterfly.
AN EMBRACE OF DANGEROUS ILLUSIONS, STUNNINGLY PORTRAYED
Our local Equity companies don't always march in lockstep, but sometimes they do. Case in point: this spring Center Stage presented us with The White Snake, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. Now Everyman Theatre has presented us with David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly, an Asian-themed novelty rich in exotic production values. To which I say: keep 'em coming. Audiences, including this critic, love to get away from the familiar.
And not just for novelty's sake. The story of this play could not possibly be told in any familiar way, because it's about the encounter with the unfamiliar: a married French diplomat's affair with a Chinese opera star. That would be enough of an immersion in the unknown, but far more strangeness than that is involved. The diplomat enters the liaison with many notions that he knows are questionable, for instance the opera star's similarity to Puccini's Madame Butterfly, which he self-consciously fetishizes while acknowledging the possibly illusory nature of the correspondence. Those are what a former Secretary of Defense called Known Unknowns. But it turns out there are some huge Unknown Unknowns for the diplomat, Rene Gallimard (Bruce Randolph Nelson), because of blinders he wears as a Westerner, as a heteronormative male, as a member of an insular foreign policy elite, even as a believer in the world-view of Madame Butterfly.
“[The] work collectively evokes a place of lovely, dangerous differences from our own.”
Gallimard's feckless plunge into this pool of unknown unknowns will cost him his marriage, his reputation, and his freedom, which the audience can see from the outset, as the play opens with him nearly at the end of his story, in a prison cell. Even then, does he care? Should he care? These are the questions Hwang leaves us with at the end.
Along the way to this conclusion, Hwang and Everyman are going to show us some things we probably have not seen before: an evening at the Chinese opera, a Cultural Revolution-era red flag-brandishing ballet a la The Red Detachment of Women, the clubby, snootily dissolute world of the French diplomatic corps. And we witness again, at second hand, the hubris and folly of the Vietnam War. We will also hear a lot of Puccini and a lot of Miles Davis, two artists it is hard to hear too much of. And it will all be done with smashing theatricality. Plaudits are due to, among others, lighting designer Jay Herzog, set designer Yu-Hsuan Chen, choreographer Chu Shan Zhu, whose work collectively evokes a place of lovely, dangerous differences from our own.
But the biggest credit for this spectacular feat must go to director Vincent M. Lancisi and the cast, particularly Nelson as Gallimard, and Vichet Chum, who takes on the physically, vocally, and kinetically challenging role of Gallimard's inamorata, Song Liling. Which is not to ignore Christopher Bloch's genially cynical turn as Gallimard's treacherous foreign service supervisor, Tuyet Thi Pham's puritanical Communist spy-handler, Deborah Hazlett as Gallimard's wife Helga, nearly but not quite clear-sighted enough for her own good, and Katharine Ariyan's Renee, a younger woman with whom Gallimard also takes up, breathtaking in her carnal directness.
In about a month's time, just about when this production closes, the play will be revived on Broadway with Clive Owen, and I'm sure that staging will deserve the accolades it receives. But it will have to be a pretty impressive production to top this one.