Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
When: through June 8
By ANNE SPISELMAN
David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly” is a masterful play about….well, so many things. Now more than a quarter of a century old, it merges Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and the real espionage case of a minor French diplomat accused of passing state secrets to his lover, a Chinese opera star he believed to be a woman but who really was a man. Hwang uses the mashup to examine sexual politics and cultural stereotypes, especially the West’s misconceptions about the East. But even more than that, this self-aware, often funny, very human drama explores our ideals of beauty and willingness to delude ourselves in the name of love.
The catch is that for the play to work, we have to empathize with the protagonist, Rene Gallimard, on every step of his journey of discovery, even though we know from the outset—because he tells us—that he was deceived. This is a delicate balance, and Court Theatre’s production, directed by Charles Newell, fails to achieve it for several reasons.
The first is that Sean Fortunato, passionate as he is in the very difficult role of Gallimard, has trouble making the necessary emotional shifts as his story moves back and forth in time. We first see him in his dingy Paris prison cell, and the combination of disbelief, anger, frustration, and despair he feels there stays with him as he recounts his school days as a nerdy kid who couldn’t get a girl, the advice of his more confident friend Marc (Mark L. Montgomery with an amusing phony French accent), his early diplomatic career and posting to Beijing, and how he meets Song Liling, the Peking Opera diva who totally captivates him.
As Song seductively convinces Gallimard that she’s the “butterfly” of his fantasies—the submissive, fragile “Oriental” woman who wants only to please her man and would die for him like Puccini’s heroine—we need to feel the chemistry between them and to think, as he does, that this really is a beautiful woman (he talks repeatedly about her beauty), even though we know better. Unfortunately, there’s almost no chemistry between Fortunato, who isn’t “in the moment” as he should be, and Nathaniel Braga’s Song, who’s neither feminine nor beautiful enough to be convincing.
Without this essential dynamic, their complicated 20-year-long dance loses its force. Behaving like a Western “man” (and his notion of Puccini’s Pinkerton), Gallimard neglects and hurts Song to win her, not realizing that all along she is manipulating him at every turn—even to the extent of coming up with a baby to quell his doubts about her gender, which by this point might put her spying mission in jeopardy.
In the second half of Newell’s production, the storytelling becomes harder to follow, creating some confusion and leading to a rushed conclusion. There’s a lot more politics, too, including views of the Vietnam War and America’s involvement—Gallimard gets sent back to France for predictions that prove to be wrong—and Song’s reduced status as a result of the Cultural Revolution, satirized in the person of Comrade Chin (Emjoy Gavino), the fiercely doctrinaire young woman who lords it over the former diva she once had to treat with respect.
After Song gets sent to Paris, the affair with Gallimard and the spying resume for years. Then, in rapid succession, there are scenes of the spy trial with the great reveal, Gallimard’s refusal to accept that Song is a man despite the evidence, the male Song’s visit to his former lover with a plea to be accepted as himself and Gallimard’s devastating realization of the truth, followed by his obsession to transform himself into the ideal woman of his illusion. Alas, by this point, I wasn’t buying any of it, not least because Fortunato was oddly manic. Braga made Song’s naked desire to be loved as himself so genuine, it came across as out of character, though maybe that was deliberate.
The supporting cast is a little uneven, but Karen Woditsch stands out as Helga, the older German woman Gallimard marries when he thinks he can’t get anyone prettier. She’s absolutely perfect whether she’s quipping about being in Australia, land of “criminals and kangaroos,” or tartly responding to Gallimard’s request for a divorce, a retort that got applause on opening night. Laura Coover plays variations on a sexy blond, while Terry Hamilton is Gallimard’s French embassy boss, among others.
The martial arts-inspired choreography is by Jamie H. J. Guan, who also choreographed (and acted in) the original Broadway production, and it’s nicely executed by dancers Aurora Adachi-Winter, Erin Clyne, and Sarah Lo.
Except for the downstage prison cell, I don’t understand Todd Rosenthal’s mostly dark set, nor does it do anything to help conjure the diverse locales. The lighting, costumes, and sound design all are fine, but in truth, this “M. Butterfly” never takes flight.
On the other hand, the show is part of the exciting “Envisioning China: A Festival of Arts & Culture” that continues through June 15 and includes an exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, a film series on Chinese Opera, and a pipa concert. For more, go to arts.uchicago.edu/envisioning-china.