That silk kimono hides a scandalous secret in “M. Butterfly,” David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning drama about the romance between a French diplomat and the Chinese opera singer he believed to be a woman – but who was in fact a man. In the nearly 30 years since Hwang’s play became something of a Broadway sensation – running for more than 750 performances, which was and still is remarkable for a straight play – men dressing as women have become rather more commonplace in popular culture. For that matter, discussions of the fluidity of identity, the “performative” aspects of gender and the unequal power relationships among men and women have proliferated.
These are all topics touched upon in the play, and are all of current note, no? (“Her mouth says no, but her eyes say yes,” is a jarringly of-the-moment line.) So in theory the revival of Hwang’s drama at the Cort Theatre, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Clive Owen as the duped diplomat, would seem to be more intriguingly relevant today than it was three decades ago, when its scandalous subject matter was perhaps the biggest draw. And yet despite Taymor’s infusions of stylish pageantry – or possibly, in part, because of them — the play’s emotional core seems to have been hollowed out, if indeed there ever was one. (I will note that I didn’t see the original.)
Though it ends with a tragic death that mimics the searing ending of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly ” – which is alluded to (and heard in bits) throughout – Taymor’s plodding, sometimes fussy staging, coupled with Hwang’s revised version of the play, ultimately leave a wearying, watery impression. Today the play seems overstuffed with now-shopworn metatheatrical gambits (direct address, audience engagement, a fake “I’m ending this show now” moment, etc.), as well as self-explanatory dialogue that bluntly lays bare its themes. Plus there’s the melodramatic climax for a big finish.
Some of Hwang’s revisions bring the narrative closer to the true story of French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot, whose life inspired the play. Bouriscot carried on an affair with a Chinese actress for two decades without realizing she was biologically male. Their relationship was revealed when he was imprisoned for espionage, having passed classified information to the Chinese through his lover.
In Hwang’s original script, the Bouriscot character, Rene Gallimard, believes from the beginning that the singer he becomes entranced by, Song Liling, is female. In the new version Gallimard (Owen) assumes early on that Song (Jin Ha) is male, knowing as he does that in Chinese opera women’s roles are played by men. But Song explains that in Chinese culture male children are prized far above female ones, so her parents ignored her sex and raised her as a boy.
There is perhaps a suggestion that Gallimard might believe Song’s story because he wants to rationalize what he sees as an unacceptable attraction to a man. But this potentially intriguing aspect is more or less discarded. The new narrative unfolds as in the original, with Gallimard and Song embarking on a romantic relationship that is cloaked in what Song describes as her natural timidity and demureness, both of which happen to conform to Western stereotypes about Asian women.
Gallimard’s diffidence about consummating the relationship – or even seeing his lover fully naked — is in part explained by his sexual insecurity. (He recalls his youthful fascination with girlie magazines in a scene that includes some rather gratuitous nudity here.) His school mate Marc, who flits haphazardly in and out of the proceedings (Murray Bartlett’s Australian accent is a little jarring coming from a presumed Frenchman), teases him for his shyness.
John Lithgow, who created the role of Gallimard, would seem a natural for a man whose insecurity and marriage of convenience to an older woman would lead him to fall for a woman who was, literally, too good to be true. (Lithgow, great actor though he was and is, never was anybody’s idea of a matinee idol.) With the strong-jawed, magnetically handsome Owen in the role, that’s a bigger leap to make. But what’s really missing from Owen’s admirably fervid performance is the yearning sense that only in his love for Song does Gallimard find a response to some deeply romantic impulse in his soul. Owen’s Gallimard seems a confident, earthbound figure, not a woolly-headed man of unfettered fantasy (“I am pure imagination,” he cries toward the end) for whom an idealized feminine figure would have such fatal allure.
Ha, by contrast, is perfectly cast. He is convincingly but not too theatrically androgynous. And as Song draws Gallimard into an intimate relationship, Ha deftly reveals the wily, transactional nature of Song’s manipulation of Gallimard, hidden behind veils of docility ostensibly arranged for Gallimard’s pleasure, but really to hide the truth. Ha is particularly commanding in the play’s climactic scenes, when he challenges Gallimard to acknowledge his love for what it is.
But this production tends to underline the play’s flaws, notably Hwang’s sometimes over-explicit writing. (And I’m not talking about the rather graphic – and new – description of the couple’s coitus.) Gallimard’s long explications of the plot of Puccini’s opera – and a jokey parody of a scene from it – eat up a lot of time. The playwright’s pointed opinions about Western cultural perceptions of the East can glare a little brightly through the dialogue, as when Song, dismissing Gallimard’s fascination with the “sacrifice” of “Madama Butterfly’s” Cio-Cio-San, says, “It’s one of your favorite fantasies, isn’t it? The submissive Oriental woman and the cruel white man.” Sometimes Song sounds uncomfortably like a sociology professor giving essay topics: “How can you objectively judge your own values?” (Five hundred words, please.)
Otherwise, when they are not making breathless declarations of adoration (“I’m the only person in the world who ever really loved you,” “They remain with us to this day, nights that turned our worlds upside down”), or pushing forward the complicated plot (Song acquires a baby she claims is Gallimard’s to keep him on a string), the two central characters often seem to be stating their positions or describing their emotions rather than doing much actual feeling.
The few ancillary characters are vaporous. A subplot involving Gallimard’s career rise and fall, tied to the war in Vietnam, is sketched in lightly, and as Gallimard’s childless wife Agnes (named Helga in the original), the fine Enid Graham might as well have a thought bubble floating above her head flashing the words, “Help! Thankless role!”
Taymor eschews the stark minimalism of the original director, John Dexter. The set by Paul Steinberg is dominated by a series of silver metal panels that glide around the stage, sometimes manipulated by the actors, and reverse to reveal more colorful Chinese décor. The problem is, the panels tend to jostle and creak and clank as they are put in place, and can be distracting. An energetic ballet sequence (choreography by Ma Cong), set during the Cultural Revolution, seems an overblown diversion.
But then this and the other musical sequences (Taymor’s husband Elliot Goldenthal did the music and sound) do provide some relief from the increasingly heavy-treading messages about how men prefer the women in their hungry mind’s eye rather than the people of flesh and blood who are their actual lovers or wives. This uncomfortable idea does have a resonant power – who among us can claim to perceive anyone other than through the prism of our own subjective experience? — but it is reiterated in “M. Butterfly” with a floridness and frequency that ultimately detracts from the play’s potency.
“M. Butterfly” opened at the Cort Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017.
Creative: Written by David Henry Hwang; Original Music and Soundscapes Composed by Elliot Goldenthal; Directed by Julie Taymor; Choreographed by Ma Cong; Scenic Design by Paul Steinberg; Costume Design by Constance Hoffman; Lighting Design by Donald Holder; Sound Design by Will Pickens; Hair and Wig Design by Dave Bova; Make-Up Design by Judy Chin; Mask Design by Stephen Kaplan; Puppet Design by Stephen Kaplan.
Producers: Nelle Nugent, Steve Traxler, Kenneth Teaton, Benjamin Feldman, Doug Morris, Gilad-Rogowsky, Jim Kierstead, Hunter Arnold, Spencer Ross and Jam Theatricals; produced in association with Alix L. L. Ritchie, Kades-Reese, Storyboard Entertainment and Jeffrey Sosnick.
Cast: Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Clea Alsip, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Enid Graham, Jason Garcia Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Scott Weber.