Twenty years ago, playwright David Henry Hwang introduced audiences to a love story that pushed the boundaries of gender, sexuality and emotional manipulation with his breakthrough play M. Butterfly. The play, revived at the Cort Theatre by visual master Julie Taymor, has been given a powerful retelling with new edits from Hwang himself to change audience expectations two decades after its major plot reveal. Stunningly rendered by Taymor, M. Butterfly has retained its relevancy and familiarity in 2017, gladly challenging audiences with its frank yet somehow deceptive themes in a way few truly great plays can. The show takes new shapes throughout its retelling as the story of René Gallimard, played with a modern and lucid fragility by Clive Owen, unfolds and expands both literally and figuratively.
Owen’s René is a sexually frustrated, kindly fantasist with his mind set on some sort of romantic fulfillment that stems from an early childhood fascination. The fascination is with Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, the West’s introductory lesson on how to fetishize East Asia and its people. When René is stationed in Peking—Beijing in the revival—during the height of the cultural revolution, he meets Chinese opera performer Song Liling. Song is played with a stern and wisecracking wisdom by the gifted Jin Ha.
The performer forces René to reconsider what the art he loves really means not only to himself, but also to the people who are the subject of his perverse fascinations. Make no mistake, René’s ideas about women and the East are cringeworthy, but coming from the mouth of Owen, one can completely understand why he wants what he wants. It is through René and Song that the story unfolds. They each take command of the show in a stunning display of Brechtian theatrics, both forced to let the other tell the next chapter of their story, background details and all. While René recalls his encounters with Song one way, the latter adds in details to create a fuller, grimmer portrait of the life René leads in Peking and the stunning truth of who Song really is.
The talented supporting cast plays a wide range of roles from Murray Bartlett’s Marc as René’s inner desires and conscience to the unexpectedly hilarious but ultimately vital Comrade Chin, played by Celeste Den. Marc and Chin act as both motivators and initiators of conflict and want, sending René and Song into personal and physical journeys that neither of them are totally confident about partaking in but reveal truths about their inner characters.
Of special note are the gorgeous orchestrations composed by Elliot Goldenthal, a frequent collaborator of Taymor’s, and the segments of Chinese opera and dance choreographed by Ma Cong. Cong’s artistry cemented the piece in such a way that prevented Taymor’s vision from devolving into an orientalist presentation of an anti-orientalist work.
While Taymor’s gift for spectacle and movement suited M. Butterfly better than most directorial visions, it would have been an odd cobweb of a work were it not for Cong’s amazing movement direction and creation of such time-grounded scenes.
Goldenthal’s music, meanwhile, creates enchanting soundscapes that not only highlight the epic nature of the story, but also the tiny, intimate moments that dig into themselves for substance.
The production is not without a few issues that are insignificant in the grand scheme of the work. Paul Steinberg’s light design, while simultaneously sparse yet revelatory, does not always mesh well with Donald Holder’s set design. The set uses gray panels to represent the inner workings of René’s mind, but the gray coloration of the panels accidentally created the occasionally drab look in an otherwise colorful, if darkly hued, world. Aside from that, Holder’s sets are an ingenious visualization of memory while Steinberg’s lights keep a level of confusion such that even the audience begins to question whether what happened in previous scenes actually happened.
M. Butterfly is arguably one of the most relevant plays on Broadway, reminding audiences that the mind can conjure illusions greater than any theater performance and that the perceptions we endow ourselves with can be shattered with the tiniest mistake, no matter how well-intentioned that they may be. How we love, view ourselves and work through disaster are all at risk in the world of M. Butterfly. Hwang’s updated text streamlines the story just enough without taking away the hits and laughs his constant, crisp writing provides on such a consistent basis. Under the design of Taymor, Cong and Rosenthal, the show truly spreads its wings like a newly hatched butterfly ready to fly to new heights.