REVIEW: “M. Butterfly” Revival Lacks Fantasy
The highly anticipated, first Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony winning drama “M. Butterfly” opened Thursday night at the Cort Theatre. Under the helm of visionary director Julie Taymor (“Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark”, “The Lion King”), and starring film actor Clive Owen, this production featuring a newly revised text by the playwright was ripe for viewing but sadly cloudy and disappointingly devoid of the fantasy necessary to sustain the drama.
“M. Butterfly” explores questions of gender, race, and international politics in a way that was singularly stunning in 1988, but perversely feels less impactful in 2017 when such conversations surround us. Based on the true story of a French diplomat who fell in love with a Chinese opera singer and carried on a decades-long affair, despite mistaken sexual identity, that later led to charges of espionage and ultimately imprisonment, “M. Butterfly” is a modern re-telling of the “Madame Butterfly” story (later adapted to Puccini’s iconic opera “Madama Butterfly”) set in China before and during the Vietnam War.
In the play, Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen), a middling French diplomat, falls in love with Song Liling (Jin Ha), an alluring Chinese opera singer—or so the text suggests. In this production, their relationship is never believable, nor is the ruse underpinning Song Liling’s deception. [Spoiler Alert!] Song is a man playing a woman playing a man playing a woman, but his real sex is now revealed early on. Removing the ambiguity surrounding Song’s sex removes the mystique of the character and the play, leaving the framework of “Madame Butterfly”, albeit with some twists, but stripping away any suspense or tension as the story merely plods on to its inevitable conclusion.
Ms. Taylor has conceptualized some beautiful imagery and inventive stagecraft, chief among them sliding screen towers that turn, open, and fold to reveal new locations. The design by Paul Steinberg works better in idea than execution, though, making for halting—and creaky—transitions that interrupt the mood, more than once leaving actors waiting to start the next scene. The lighting by Donald Holder and music and “soundscapes” by Elliot Goldenthal (husband of Ms. Taylor) are excellent, as is the intermittent use of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” score, lending an ethereal spirit to select moments that soared, and perhaps unintentionally underscoring the rest that didn’t.
For this play to work, there must be some ambiguity to sustain Gallimard’s fantasy, otherwise he is dim and pathetic, not tragic. As Song, Mr. Ha employs a highly affected, presentational accent that is off-putting. It is obvious that he is male, despite the script, and scenes that could be lyrical and entrancing fall flat. Gallimard boasts that he has “known and been loved by the perfect woman.” The audience doesn’t meet her in this revival.
The backdrop of the Vietnam War, so removed from an audience in 2017, is treated as fodder for comedy, instead of as a menacing tone-setter. The resulting scenes of discussion between diplomats far too facile and cartoonish. At the performance I attended, the laughter was in all the wrong places, which concerned me theatrically, but also politically. Despite being authored by a Chinese-American playwright, and featuring some important and timely discourse about gender dynamics and racial stereotypes, there were chuckles around me whenever Song alluded to her female gender. Perhaps a defter treatment of this character might have avoided those laughs, which, in 2017 in a theatre in New York, were depressing to hear.
I have no doubt that Mr. Hwang has written an important and powerful play, but like its characters who are “prisoners of [their] time and place”, this production of “M. Butterfly” is too.
Bottom Line: This much-anticipated revival of David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” falls flat, stripped of the ambiguity that feeds the fantasy central to the drama, in a clunky production with uneven performances that doom an otherwise timely play tackling gender, race, and international politics.
138 West 48th Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes (one intermission)
Opening Night: October 26, 2017
Currently on sale through February 25, 2018