Theater review by Adam Feldman
It’s impossible to know, but some of our current cultural discourse around gender and colonialism can perhaps be traced back to an M. Butterfly effect. David Henry Hwang’s 1988 hit, the first Broadway play by an Asian-American writer, was inspired by a news item about a French diplomat who had leaked state secrets to his Chinese lover, a male opera star whom he improbably believed to be a woman. Hwang extrapolated that story into a larger inquiry into male fantasy and projection, bound in this sensational case to what one character calls “the international rape mentality” of the West toward the East.
Three decades later, M. Butterfly remains provocative and timely, with a great deal to unpack—in part because Hwang, in an unusually extensive revision of the text for its current Broadway revival, has stuffed it with new information. The humiliated Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) still begins the play in the cocoon of a French prison cell, guiding the audience through flashbacks to his time with Song Liling (Jin Ha, continuously intriguing). But the nature of their intercultural romance has shifted. When they meet in this version, Gallimard assumes that Song is male; Song must invent a far-fetched family history to convince him otherwise. These changes, among others, help shift the storytelling away from symbolism and toward a more specific account of a particular relationship, albeit a bizarre one. Aside from lively dance sequences set at the Peking Opera—which was traditionally all-male, Song notes, “because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act”—there are few spectacular flourishes.
Yet the play’s metatheatrical structure inescapably returns you to the realm of larger argument, and Julie Taymor’s production, with its bare walls and sliding panels, emphasizes Hwang’s interest in the artifice of self-presentation. (“Most of my life is a performance,” says Song, lying with a truth.) Owen’s rugged presence is an odd match for Gallimard’s beta-male awkwardness, but his apparent butchness has a place amid the play’s flights of reversal. M. Butterfly depicts the Western male gaze as an all-but-willful refusal to see; desperately oblivious, Gallimard is as blinded by himself as Oedipus. Not all of the directorial choices make immediate sense to me: Because the actors seem to be using their own accents, for example, Gallimard sounds English while his also-French wife (Enid Graham) and school chum (Murray Bartlett) sound American and Australian, respectively. But even at its most confusing—not to say inscrutable—the revival commands fascination.
Cort Theatre (Broadway). By David Henry Hwang. Directed by Julie Taymor. With Clive Owen, Jin Ha. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission. Through February 25.