KPBS AIRDATE: August 25, 1993
Way back in the fourteenth century, when Chaucer wrote that “Love is blynd,” the expression was already proverbial. But even his Wife of Bath would blanch at “M. Butterfly,” the Tony Award-winning best play of 1988.
Based on an incredible true story, the play tells of a twenty-year affair between a French diplomat and a Chinese singer from the Peking opera. Only after imprisonment for treason does the diplomat learn that his Chinese lover is a man.
The playwright, David Henry Hwang, is fond of turning established thinking on its ear. Here, he tackles love, East-West relations and the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly.” The opera is a wonderful framing device for the story of Gallimard and Song Liling, only, as we learn along with the diplomat, the Western fantasy is turned inside out: here, it is the Occidental man who becomes the Butterfly: submissive, easily trapped, and ultimately destroyed.
Theater is about illusion, and so, quite often, is love. It’s a perfect match, although Hwang loads the burden heavily on the shoulders of his diplomat, who walks us through his version of the events leading up to his imprisonment and his disillusionment. It’s a very difficult role. Gallimard is almost constantly onstage, laying out his life, in past and present tenses.
We have to believe that a character like this could exist, could have such a strong image of the perfect woman that even a less-than-perfect model will suffice. We have to believe but not revile him, accept but not ridicule him. But the play’s credibility hinges even more forcefully on Song Liling, who must convince us of both femininity and masculine machismo, all in the course of one evening.
At the North Coast Repertory Theatre, in a stark and haunting production, both lead actors are amazingly successful — Ron Choularton as Gallimard and P.J. Smith as Song Liling. We might want a teeny bit more differentiation between their early and late incarnations, but we come to understand why both of them have done what they have. And that makes us re-think love and Asians, men and women, American imperialism and ethnic stereotypes. It’s a powerful production of a powerful play, with taut, confident direction by Olive Blakistone.
Marty Burnett’s evocative set is in striking black and red, and he even managed to fit that all-important curving ramp onto the shallow North Coast Rep stage. The costumes are magnificent and the choreography is majestic. The supporting cast is strong, but the Asian characters, though nicely played by Debbie Luce, should be handled by an Asian actor.
The rest is theater magic. Smith is sultry and seductive, especially in Western garb. Choularton is a hapless patsy, constantly caught unaware, victimized most by his own delusions.
“Perhaps,” he muses, “happiness is so rare, our minds will turn somersaults to protect it.” Later, he sighs, “I am a man who loved a woman created by a man.” And, having lost everything to this “feminine ideal,” he tells us his story because he feels that we will come to understand and perhaps even “to envy” him… Believe it or not, when the real-life Gallimard was released from prison in France a few years ago, he still maintained that he had no regrets.
“M. Butterfly” may make you think of “The Crying Game.” It will certainly make you think.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.