By Pat Launer
This week, the stage was estrogen-fueled;
Chicks rocked, females ruled
(Though some were less than bona fide —
like the one who’s utterly ‘Butterflied’).
Some are Divas, some are shady;
A Spider Woman and a Gingerbread Lady.
Check out the parade of the Fairer Sex
And see who’s real and who’s Memorex!
The play has been billed as “a story so bizarre it could only be true.” Inspired by a small piece he read in the New York Times (May 1986), playwright David Henry Hwang created “M. Butterfly,” which became the Tony Award-winning Best Play of 1988. The piece concerns Gallimard, a French diplomat, who falls in love with Song Liling, a Chinese opera star who personifies his fantasy of the delicate Asian female flower. They have an affair that spans 20 years, after which Gallimard learns that Song is a Communist spy — and a man.
As strange as the tale is in dramatic form (Hwang also wrote the 1993 screenplay, directed by David Cronenberg, starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone), the true story is far more outrageous. So, here’s the real scoop.
The original (and genuine) cast of characters comprises Bernard Boursicot, who was 20 in 1964 when he met Shi Peipu, age 26. Although Shi had been a singer in the Peking Opera, Boursicot had never seen him perform. Not only that, but he’d never seen his lover dressed as a woman. Boursicot believed that Shi was brought up as a boy because of family pressure about producing sons. Shi insisted that he never told Boursicot he was woman; it was a misunderstanding he never corrected.
When they began having an affair, they made love rarely, and only in the dark. Boursicot thought his lover’s extreme sexual shyness was Chinese custom. In 1965, Shi claimed to be pregnant. Several months later, the infant Bertrand appeared (probably a black-market baby). Soon after, Boursicot left China, but maintained contact with Shi for many years.
During the Cultural Revolution, Boursicot passed classified French documents to the Chinese, in an effort to protect his lover and son. In 1982, he managed to get Shi and Bertrand, then 16, out of China. They came to Paris, where both “parents” were arrested for espionage. During the trial, while Boursicot was in prison, he learned that Shi had been identified as a man. For six months, he refused to believe it. Finally, when they were placed in a small room together, Boursicot asked for direct evidence. Shortly afterward, he slit his throat. Ever the loser, he survived, to become the laughingstock of his country, which is how the play begins.
Both Boursicot and Shi served time in prison; both were ultimately pardoned. When I last checked in on the story some years ago, Boursicot had finally come out and was living with a gay lover; son Bertrand was living with and supporting Shi, serving as his dresser. Contact among the three was at that time rare, but no one had any regrets. “When I believed it,” Boursicot has said, “it was a beautiful story.”
That intensity of belief is at the core of the play. Self-delusion. The degree to which we seduce ourselves in love. Hwang’s drama is also a deconstructed version of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The French diplomat (named Gallimard in the play) fantasizes that he is Pinkerton and his lover is Butterfly. By the end of the piece, we realize, as he finally does, that it is he who has played the role of Butterfly: submissive, easily trapped, and ultimately destroyed.
The play makes us re-think our conceptions of love and Asians, men and women, American imperialism and ethnic stereotypes. It’s a powerful piece of theater, and it’s powerfully presented in a felicitous co-production of Diversionary Theatre and Asian American Repertory Theatre. Needless to say, the themes of the play are near and dear to the hearts of both companies.
It’s a perfect collaboration, facilitating sensitivity and avoiding pitfalls in terms of any and all stereotypes. The black-hooded Kabuki kurogo dancers (Puay Kua, Kathy Song) move noiselessly around the stage, serving as or handing out props. At the outset, using fans, they portray a gliding butterfly, who moves upstage before the action begins.
In this version, there are fewer surprises than when I first saw the play over a decade ago. Here, we pretty much know all along that Song is a man. Perhaps that was intentional on the part of director Doren Elias, to show the intensity of Gallimard’s delusion. But there was much more of a thrill to the piece when the truth was revealed to us late in the game, along with the hapless diplomat.
As Song, Diep Huynh glides like a Butterfly and has effectively mastered the small, subtle moves of a woman. But the makeup belies his identity from the get-go. Better coverage (and maybe some mammary padding) would help us suspend disbelief for the long stretches that we have to go along with Gallimard. Huynh gains significant dramatic force and energy in the second act, and his transition into Song’s macho maleness is thrilling.
As for Gallimard, if he’s not a sympathetic, comprehensible (if clueless) character, the play doesn’t work. Jesse MacKinnon definitely rises to the occasion. He’s delusional, but we understand his needs, his unhappy marriage, his wish to be adored like his womanizing friend Marc (Manuel Fernandes, in a very funny turn, though it plays more American than French). MacKinnon’s Gallimard is more pitiful than laughable, and that really makes the production succeed. His accent is also the best; the others are variable or nonexistent, and that seems an odd directorial choice; there are folks from 4-5 countries/cultures represented here and the consistently American accents are jarring.
Kim Miller is wonderful as a kvetchy Suzuki (who’s a comical, Asian Jewish-Mother) and as the butch communist, Comrade Chin. The rest of the cast provides fine support in Shulamit Nelson’s apt costumes. The lighting and sound are well designed and executed. But the set is often intrusive. While Amanda Stephens manages, on the small Diversionary stage, to fit in the four segments/locales required (the Peking Opera stage, Song’s apartment, Gallimard’s home and his prison cell), the cutouts in the floor (for a pond and a mini-garden) are intrusive for the actors (and the audience, who keeps watching them perch precariously over the divots, hoping they don’t fall in). Little to no use was made of these Asian decorative effects (Melissa Fernandes’ fall into the pond was unnecessary), and they served to minimize the playing space and confine the movements of the actors.
Quibbles aside, this is a thoroughly successful collaboration and a winning production. The story is so compelling, so incredible, and the play so theatrically varied and fascinating, the effect is mesmerizing.
ONE GINGERBREAD LADY, ON THE ROCKS
Neil Simon. King of the One Liners. Script doctor to the stars. He’s often thought of as a one-liner himself, but after his first string of 1960s laugh-riots, he tried to venture into serious territory with “The Gingerbread Lady” (1970). Audiences had a hard time with it. And it seemed that Simon himself wasn’t thoroughly comfortable with ‘seriosity.’
In the play, he’s taken on the not-so-funny topic of alcoholism, which is even less funny in 2004 than it was in 1970. He starts the piece in his usual, breezy way, with comical characters (some of them rather stereotypical) making rapid entrances and exits — a flirtatious Latino delivery boy, a queeny fading actor, a Jewish American Princess whose only concern is her face cream and clothes. And… the eponymous centerpiece, a has-been chanteuse who’s just gotten released from 10 weeks of rehab; her too-young, nasty musician ex-boyfriend; and her ever-patient, angelic, “child is father to the man” teenage daughter. Except for the teen, this is a pack of hopeless losers. And despite fine performances, we don’t really care that much about any of them. The play doesn’t seem to be making much of a point. And, in watching Evy fall off the wagon and go on a serious bender, we feel decidedly uncomfortable, as if we’re co-conspirators, enablers, encouraging her downfall by laughing at her sad-funny, self-deprecating quips. Will she ever stay sober? Will she ever grow up? Simon leaves it up in the air. But throughout it all, the wisecracking never stops. It’s no wonder this isn’t one of his more-produced plays, he who is considered the most-produced playwright in America. It’s not clear that this is the right play or the right time. But Renaissance artistic director George Flint usually has his reasons. And he certainly has casting acumen.
The company is stellar. The juicier characters even get to take an emotional journey. This includes Jim Strait as hilariously fey Jimmy, and Jill Drexler, perfectly lovely as the looks-obsessed Toby. In the one-note roles, Landon Vaughn has just the right bad-boy look for the malicious musician, Jesus Garcia is a find as the (un-PC) delivery guy and Amanda Sitton is adorably eager and saintly as the daughter. In the juiciest role of all, Sandra Ellis-Troy is a force of nature. This is the ghastly flip-side of the expansive Auntie Mame character she inhabited several years back at North Coast Rep. Her humor, her sexuality and especially her frighteningly real drunk scene are spectacular.
Jeanne Reith’s costumes are deliciously ’70s and Karen Filijan’s lighting spotlights all the right moves. The set (Marty Burnett) doesn’t really resemble any West Eighties brownstone I’ve ever seen; it lacks the Old World elegance gone to seed; it just looks seedy and streaky.
Flint’s direction is terrific. The pace and timing are impeccable. The piece moves at breakneck speed, and drags us along on its downhill journey. But the play is missing a heart and a core; in its desperate efforts to be both a comedy and drama, it manages to be uncomfortably, unsatisfyingly neither.
It’s got quite a pedigree. Manuel Puig’s potent political novel, “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” set in an unnamed South American country, was first published in Spain (under the title, El Beso de la Mujer Arana) in 1976, the year of Argentina’s military coup. The English translation became available in the U.S. in 1979 and inspired a slew of adaptations. The movie version (1985) garnered a Best Actor Oscar for William Hurt, who played Molina, and nurtured the career of Raul Julia in the role of Valentín.
Puig reframed his novel for the stage in 1985. The musical version was a collaboration begun in 1988 with the composing team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, director Harold Prince and writer Terrence McNally. Puig never lived to see this final incarnation of his provocative creation; he died of a heart attack during gall bladder surgery in 1990, at age 58. The musical premiered on Broadway in 1993 (it had already captured the London Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Musical the year before) and won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Musical Score. The title role was inaugurated by Chita Rivera, later played by Vanessa Williams. A Best Actor Tony went to Brent Carver in the role of Molina.
6th @ Penn Theatre is the perfect venue for this pitch-perfect production of the play. The two protagonists are cramped in a prison cell; we feel the confinement in the close, intimate space. The dialogue, interactions, confrontations and intimations are searing, claustrophobic, extremely intense. The potent piece is all about the conflict between power and sex, revolutionary politics and repressed/expressed sexuality.
Valentín Arregui Paz and Luis Alberto Molina are polar opposites, one a flaming, apolitical queen, a window-dresser accused of molesting a minor; the other a macho revolutionary who’s suppressed his sensual side to serve the political Cause. Their realities are mutually exclusive. Valentín studies Marxism. Molina colors his world with images of the silver screen. Ultimately, it is the retold stories of the movies that help keep both of them sane. And over time, they each find themselves, in a profound, human sense.
In their respective times, the novel, the play, and the film were considered breakthroughs. Little had been written in the major media about homosexuality or the plight of political prisoners in South America. This was especially true at a time when the U.S. government was sponsoring and training right-wing military regimes in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and other countries in the region. But the relevance remains.
The political prisoner Valentín has been held without charges for almost three years, under ’emergency’ Presidential authority that smacks of the situation in Guantanamo today. His gay cellmate has been sentenced to eight years for a sexual offense that would have earned a light punishment — probably not even imprisonment — for a straight person. The double standard is alive and well in our country, too, as is the gradual erosion of civil liberties under the Patriot Act.
In his director’s notes, Doug Hoehn also points out the repressive social order promoted and perpetuated in Hollywood movies — the sexist view of women in society, the model of beauty and subservience it perpetuates. This is the standard by which Molina, who considers himself a woman, has defined himself. Valentín is a victim of repressive thinking as well; Marxism sees sex as mere animal instinct, an obstacle to the revolution. Trapped together, these two misguided men find some semblance of self-knowledge and mutual understanding. It’s a powerful creation — in any medium.
Director Hoehn is also a playwright, critic, actor and producer. His casting for this production is impeccable and his production fosters all the intelligence and intensity the play demands. With his spidery, fluttery hands and his nervous energy, Douglas Lay is magnificent as Molina, and Giancarlo Ruiz is marvelous at bringing all the requisite energy, machismo, anger and confusion to Valentín. Their grimy props and clothes could be even grungier, but their battles and their intimate connection couldn’t be more heart-wrenching. Spectacular performances, absolutely not to be missed.
EVERY DIVA HAS HER DAY
Divas, divas everywhere. Onstage, onscreen, on VH1. Now, Marion J. Caffey (who created “Three Mo’ Tenors” and last year, gave us “Cookin’ at the Cookery”) has spread his wings and musical influence — to bring us “Three Mo’ Divas” at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Actually, it’s SIX divas, since the musical requirements of the show are considered to be extensive enough (like “Love, Janis”) to require two alternating casts. Not to seem hierarchical in any way, he’s called them Cast 1 and Cast A. the night I was there, it was Cast A — Henrietta Davis, Jamet Pittman and N’Kenge Simpson-Hoffman.
There’s no storyline here, just an effort to show the wide range of musical styles that African American women have made their own over the course of 400 years: opera, blues, jazz, gospel, spiritual, Broadway and soul. This is, admittedly, a concert, not a musical. And, unlike the “Three Tenors,” which brings together already-established musical phenomena, this show’s trying to showcase talented singers in the hopes of creating some real divas. And there are many diva-delights in this evening of song.
All six of the women have had classical training, but in each cast, there’s one who’s more operatic than the others. In Cast A, it was Henrietta Davis, who knocked our socks off with her opening arias, but had a lot more trouble making the transition into the other musical styles. She’s a clear example of the frequent observation that many opera singers don’t easily, naturally cross over to popular music. Her version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was so earnest and portentous, it was nearly laughable. This wasn’t the best choice for her. But she did an excellent job with the traditional spiritual “The Trouble I’ve Seen” and her scat-singing in “All of Me” was really fine.
The other two singers were enormously versatile, had a lot more cheeky playfulness and musical flexibility. And each had several knockout numbers. Janet Pittman has a clear, pure voice, and a wonderful way with show-tunes. Her rendition of “Your Daddy’s Son,” from Ragtime, was especially beautiful. Simpson-Hoffman rocked the house with “Miss Celie’s Blues,” “Minnie the Moocher” and “Fascinatin’ Rhythm.” Every number she did was a showstopper. The R&B/soul/Motown section was amusingly retro in style, but there was a lot of Diana Ross, a little Chaka Khan and a noticeable lack of Aretha.
When two or three sang together, the harmonies were gorgeous. But with such powerful voices, why, I wonder, did they have to be amplified in a not-that-big theater venue? It seemed unnecessary, especially if these divas aren’t performing eight times a week. Their costumes were a brash combo of elegance and sauciness (Simpson-Hoffman especially pulled this off, with her zoot suit and sexy-flirty ways). And speaking of combos, the band was killer, with conductor Joseph Joubert especially outstanding on piano.
The set and lighting (Dale Jordan) are evocative — large panels of wood carving reminiscent of chains. There was more suggestion of history and politics in the set than the musical choices, though. Two glaring exceptions proved an odd juxtaposition. “Strange Fruit,” the gut-churning Lewis Allen song of lynchings made popular by Billie Holiday, was gorgeously sung by Jamet Pittman, contrapuntally paired with “Lament” (sung by Henrietta Davis). This harked back to the dark history of African Americans in this country, and the director/creator’s note that these skilled singers have been “for the most part, denied their rightful place by most opera companies.” So, in view of all that, why, several songs later, did all the women sing a rousing rendition of “America the Beautiful?” It didn’t seem ironic, nor did it fit the sentiment of the evening. And as a “salute to the troops,” it was just pandering PC.
Caffey’s direction kept the divas on a very tight rein. There was little room for them to really cut loose and be themselves, which is what one would hope from a diva. Often, they just stood facing the audience and sang. Simpson-Hoffman could have used more flat-out choreography; she moved like greased lightning, but didn’t get enough opportunity to show her stuff. Everything seemed a bit too contrived and mannered. Using the moving, anthemic “Ragtime” number, “Let Them Hear You,” as the theme of the evening was inspired, and it left the audience with just the right message. Why we couldn’t go out to the singing of the divas or the playing of the fantastic band, rather than to recorded music by other people, was beyond me.
TRIAL BY JURY
Just another friendly reminder: check out my 25-minute documentary, “Trial by Fire: The Making of a Theater Professional” on City-TV (cable channel 24 on Cox and Time-Warner) this week, the final lead-up to the SDSU Design-Performance Jury on Friday, March 26, 9-2:30pm.
You can also see it streaming live on the internet (sandiego.gov/citytv).
The documentary focuses on the Design/Performance Jury, coming up this Friday, in the Experimental Theatre on the campus of SDSU.
If you care about theater, acting, design, direction, you’re sure to learn something from observing this fascinating behind-the-scenes process and discussion.
This year’s jury will include Rosina Reynolds and Jordan Baker (the original third tall women in Edward Albee’s play of similar name) . The play of note this year is Albee’s “Finding the Sun” and since the Theater Dept. has merged with telecommunications and film, the third group will make its presentation on film rather than as live theater. Watch the doc and then attend the 21st annual Jury. You’ll really enjoy it! Here are the final remaining times to watch:
CITY TV (CABLE 24, Cox or Time-Warner)
It will also STREAM LIVE (sandiego.gov/citytv)
Wed. 3/24 at 6 PM and 7 PM
Thu. 3/25 at 6 PM
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Kiss of the Spider Woman” – spectacular performances, provocative play; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, final perfs Wed. 3/24, Sunday 3/28, Tuesday 3/30, Wed. 3/31.
“The Gingerbread Lady” — wonderful ensemble work, delicious performances; serious Simon; Renaissance theatre at Cygnet; through April 25.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
“Two Sisters and a Piano” — passion and politics from Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz; steamy story, provocative performances; on the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through April 11
“Ashes to Ashes” and “The Lover” — dark, cynical, enigmatic, delicious; wonderful performances by Ron Choularton and Cristina Soria, directed by Robert May… At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 4.
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s EXTENDED through April 3
Spring has sprung — and San Diego theater is in full, glorious bloom!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.