KPBS AIRDATE: March 26, 2004
Theater is all about illusion, and so, quite often, is love. We all see what we want to see, believe what we want to believe, even in the face of hard-edged reality. This theme recurs, poignantly, in three knockout productions currently on San Diego stages. What we expect of a lover, a mother, a woman, a man is not always what we get. But we’re all capable of imagining that what we’ve got is what we desire.
No play covers this stark turf more powerfully than “M. Butterfly,” the fact-based, shocking story of a French diplomat who falls in love with a Chinese Opera star and even after a 20-year affair, refuses to believe that his lover is a spy — and a man. In a wonderfully felicitous collaboration, Asian American Repertory Theatre and Diversionary Theatre have mounted a compelling production that underscores the fantasy of the submissive Asian, framed as a deconstruction of the Puccini opera, “Madama Butterfly.” In a finely etched performance, Jesse MacKinnon makes us sympathize with the poor, delusional Gallimard, and Diep Huynh plays weak but is really exceedingly strong as the object of his affection, the demurely duplicitous but irresistible Song Liling. A lovely production, capably directed by Doren Elias.
Misconceptions of the roles and expectations of men and women feature prominently in the politically-charged “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” in a spectacular production at 6th @ Penn Theatre. Manuel Puig’s drama is set in a South American prison cell, where a gay window-dresser and a macho revolutionary are forced by confinement to confront their illusions, their inner demons and each other. Excellently directed by Doug Hoehn and magnificently acted by Douglas Lay and Giancarlo Ruiz.
Stereotypes also abound in Neil Simon’s rarely-produced comic drama, “The Gingerbread Lady.” Although it’s replete with the playwright’s signature one-liners, this 1970 play takes on a very touchy topic — alcoholism. A brash, blowzy former chanteuse has just returned from 10 weeks in rehab. Without sex or direction, she soon falls off the wagon and goes on a horrific bender that’s punctuated by wickedly self-deprecating humor. These days, it’s less than funny… and extremely discomforting. But the part is perfectly played by Sandra Ellis-Troy, and a terrific ensemble supports her efforts and enables her fall. Her daughter, gracefully portrayed by Amanda Sitton, is a teenager more mature than her parent, who still sees the potential for a dream mother, despite the nightmarish inebriate she’s stuck with. Renaissance Theatre’s George Flint directs with a sure hand and an excellent sense of comic timing, though the piece itself is problematic.
All three plays are masterful studies in self-deception. By way of explanation, “M. Butterfly’s” Gallimard said it best: “Perhaps,” he mused, “happiness is so rare, our minds will turn somersaults to protect it.”
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.