Playwright David Henry Hwang provides ample reasons to dislike his 1988 Tony-winning smash, M. Butterfly. Director Charles Newell, in his confused, miscast revival for Court Theatre, provides a few more.
Hwang’s play, based on a true story, focuses on former French diplomat Rene Gallimard, rotting in a Paris prison and reliving his long, scandalous affair with Song Liling—aka Butterfly—a Peking opera star and cross-dressing spy who uses her intimacy with Gallimard to gather inside information about America’s involvement in Vietnam for her Chinese Communist handlers. The affair allows Gallimard, long lacking in masculine oomph, to discover his inner cad, a liberating move he lives to regret. It also lets Hwang pound everything into a neat schema: men dominate and misunderstand women in the same way the West dominates and misunderstands the East. After demonstrating his thesis ad nauseam in two long, inefficient acts, he puts Butterfly on trial in act three so she can reiterate it explicitly. “The West thinks of itself as masculine—big guns, big industry, big money—so the East is feminine,” she says, now dressed as a man. “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated—because a woman can’t think for herself.” Got it.
The overly broad performances in Newell’s unrelentingly emphatic production exacerbate the script’s schematic feel, erasing any residual ambiguity from the play. Even the usually compelling Sean Fortunato as Gallimard repeatedly ratchets up the anguish to a grotesque level that invites little empathy. Newell also clutters most every scene with inexpressive peripheral stage business—a trio of Kurogo dancers shuffle props around, out-of-scene characters lurk upstage. For no clear reason, all the characters speak in appropriate accents—French, Chinese, or German—except Gallimard. Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal inexplicably plants a rusty sink in the middle of the stage as if it were the play’s central metaphor. And although act two ends with Butterfly telling audience members to go out and stretch their legs while she changes costumes, Newell instead holds us captive, planting actors in the aisles to hum along to prerecorded music and stranding Gallimard center stage to give long, pained looks at a kimono.
The one element of Hwang’s play that succeeds is the tortured love affair between Gallimard and Butterfly, a relationship rooted in fantasy and manipulation. Gallimard sees in Butterfly the embodiment of the ideally submissive woman, a persona Butterfly expertly crafts to reel him in. But Newell makes the fatal decision to cast the non-Chinese Nathaniel Braga as Butterfly. Set aside the troubling choice to deny a Chinese actor the opportunity to play the lead in this high-profile production (while filling all the European roles with Caucasian actors); Braga’s sturdy frame and pronounced features prevent him from passing as a woman for a second. It’s impossible to believe that Gallimard would be fooled, let alone project his decades-old fantasies of female perfection onto Braga, no matter how attractive Song Liling’s makeup or well-cut her dress. And the climactic reveal, when Butterfly strips naked before Gallimard, is a hollow exercise. The heart of the story is dead on arrival.