By David Henry Hwang
Directed by Julie Taymor
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“M. Butterfly,” the stunning albeit straightforward play about fantasy, deception, espionage, and betrayal seems to have lost its way at the Cort Theatre. Whether this results from David Henry Hwang’s revisions and updates or from something inherent in the production itself is uncertain. This latest iteration focuses on Song Liling’s (Jin Ha) sexual status rather than on French diplomat Rene Galimand’s (Clive Owen) obsessive fantasy driven by his insatiable xenophobia. Notice was given this week that the play would close prematurely on December 17, 2017. What happened to Julie Taymor’s staging of the endearing drama?
First, what did work for this production is the casting of Jin Ha as Song Liling and Clive Owen as Rene Gallimand. Both actors explored the many levels of their complex characters which resulted in powerful, endearing, authentic, and believable performances. Mr. Owen portrays the obsessive Rene with panache and precision and manages to counterpoint the character’s naivete with a passionate need to be in control. Seemingly unaware of Song Liling’s sexual status and political connections, Rene still believes he is secure in his employment and able to dismiss his commitment to his wife.
Jin Ha portrays the elusive Chinese opera star Song Liling with a compelling gravitas that transcends all conversations about the conventions of human sexuality. Mr. Ha’s character is firmly entrenched in the realm of fantasy and the actor skillfully and subtly entraps Rene into that fantasy – so pervasively that Rene cannot follow through on his demands for Song Liling to undress to confirm his growing suspicions about her true status. Rene’s delusion obfuscates rather than clarifies his understanding of the precarious position he is in politically and professionally.
“M. Butterfly” is a fantasia that rattles the gates of reality and questions all preconceived ideas about fidelity, fealty, and the fragility of the human psyche. Questioned also is the understanding of human sexuality. The critical questions about, for example, whether Jin Ha successfully plays a woman belies an underbelly of stereotypes and assumptions that raises rich and enduring questions. What does a man look like? What does a woman look like? What does it mean to even raise these questions? What defines ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine?’ What does it mean to dress like a man or to dress like a woman?
Jin Ha’s performance is not only compelling, as noted earlier, it is also profoundly convincing. Mr. Ha manages to blur the boundaries between what is perceived to be real and what is perceived to be fiction. His portrayal of the complex opera star is the hallucination Rene needs to survive in a world too encumbered by reality. Together with Mr. Owen, the actors elucidate the Yin and the Yang of universal truths.
Working against the performances, unfortunately, is Paul Steinberg’s cumbersome and oddly unimaginative set. The constant movement of stage hands (and actors) pushing, pulling, and spinning panels around the stage distracts from the needed grounding of the plots and subplots driven by the conflicts of the characters so clearly defined by playwright David Henry Hwang. It is lamentable that “M. Butterfly” is closing early; however, choices made by the creative team are crucial to the success of any production. Some choices in this instance were less than commendable.