Wisdom Bridge Theatre

When I saw M. Butterfly on Broadway in 1988, I was dazzled by the epical proportions of the design and performances. The sprawling stage was outfitted with a long, winding ramp and decorated with all manner of screens and drapes to evoke the story’s Chinese setting. The cast, headed by John Lithgow, gave their characterizations an almost operatic level of power. But as impressed as I was, I wasn’t quite sure if there was actually a play under all that extravagance.

When I interviewed M. Butterfly’s author, David Henry Hwang, last year, I mentioned this to him. He acknowledged his own reservations: “One of the things putting all of this orientalia into the play does is kind of lull the audience into a state where they’re more willing to go along with the stereotyped visions of the Orient that cause Gallimard [the pro- tagonist] to fall into the trap he does,” Hwang said–noting also that the elaborate direction had helped make the play a Broadway hit despite its unconventional sexual and political themes.

But there’s nothing lulling about Wisdom Bridge’s new mounting of M. Butterfly. Dispensing with most of the glitz and pseudoritual of the Broadway version, and embracing rather than denying the intimacy of the Wisdom Bridge space, director Jeffrey Ortmann has focused attention back where it belongs: on the words. Driven by Robert Scogin’s astringent and sensitive lead performance, Ortmann’s staging (on a simple, single-level stage backed by plain screens on which flowers are occasionally projected) clarifies and colors the script with a keen intelligence. Much more than either the Broadway premiere or the touring production that played here last year, this staging links Hwang’s sexual, political, and cultural themes in a convincing and thought-provoking way while bringing out Hwang’s darkly ironic humor.

M. Butterfly is really quite intimate dramatically–though its public implications about the confusions of East-West and male-female relations are broad, these emerge believably only if the humanity of the basic story is treated with the delicacy it deserves. Inspired by but not really based on the case of one Bernard Boursicot, M. Butterfly tells of Rene Gallimard, an introverted French diplomat who starts out in a low-level job in Beijing in the early 1960s and then rises to vice-consul. The reason for Gallimard’s improved confidence is his affair with Song Liling, a performer in the Peking Opera; the beautiful Song convinces Gallimard that she is the “perfect woman,” and so stimulates his self-image that he begins to forcefully promote his political opinions–including a belief that the communists in Vietnam are destined to crumble under American firepower because “Orientals will always submit to a greater force.” Just look at Song.

But not too closely–for Song is really a man, an actor whose onstage specialty, female impersonation, makes him an ideal spy. Seducing diplomatic secrets out of the deluded Gallimard–and even “delivering” his baby–this Maoist Mata Hari is able to supply his supervisors with intelligence over a couple of decades. Finally Song and Gallimard are arrested on espionage charges; confronted only then with Song’s true gender, Gallimard says merely: “It was dark, and she was very modest.”

Boursicot, the real-life Gallimard, is a gay man whose attraction to the transvestite Shi Peipu can be explained as an expression of his then-latent homosexuality. But Hwang, an Asian American heterosexual, doesn’t delve into this area. Instead he weaves a complex web of ideas relating to cultural and sexual misconceptions of all kinds. Gallimard–his name, borrowed from the famous publishing house, seems to epitomize elitist French culture–sees Asian society through the obscuring veil of white Western assumptions of superiority. For him the East is essentially feminine (a quality he resolutely denies in himself, though his androgynous first name, Rene, hints at it), and ripe for possession. Meanwhile, Song believes that his service to his nation will give him the privilege he needs to survive as a homosexual and artist in a society whose ancient values and modern ideology are united only in their disgust for actors and “perverts.” Both men are wrong, and both suffer–the more so because Song’s betrayal makes mutual support impossible.

Hwang’s original concept was to use Gallimard’s folly to expose the roots of the French and American debacles in Vietnam. Four years after its premiere, the play continues to offer insight into the distressing developments in Asia and in Asia’s relationship with the West. The grim excesses of the 1960s Cultural Revolution–cleverly signaled through a dance sequence choreographed by Barbara Robertson that depicts Song’s brutal “reeducation” as a socialist landlords-torture-the-tenants ballet–inevitably remind us of the Tiananmen Square massacre, while the French politicians’ inability to confront the reality of Asian cultural independence evokes recent images of frustrated auto manufacturers on their vain visit to Japan. Unlike many political plays, M. Butterfly addresses its ideas in very human terms, which pretty much guarantees it will have relevance as long as there are good actors to play it.

The actors at Wisdom Bridge are quite good. Scogin effectively uses his dry, droll drawl to narrate his own story as it’s happening, allowing Gallimard’s suppressed emotions to break through only occasionally, to powerful effect. Song is played by Ahmed Elkassabany–who forthrightly uses his own male name rather than the coy initials employed on Broadway by B.D. Wong and on the road by A. Mapa. This may be an acknowledgment of Elkassabany’s main drawback: he’s not a convincing woman. His voice is too low, and his arms too strong–a problem compounded by the ill-advised sleeveless dress he wears at one point (though in general Nanalee Raphael-Schirmer’s costumes are excellent, as are John Murbach’s simple scenic design and the lighting, by Barbara Reeder and Michael Rourke). That drawback aside, Elkassabany is an effective foil for Scogin’s Gallimard, gently hinting at Song’s “lotus blossom” frailty to snare the “white devil” diplomat. In the last scenes of the play he resists the temptation to overplay the openly male Song as a crude punk, coming off instead as just a cocky young actor who found himself quite literally in the role of a lifetime. Lisa Tejero uses her doll-like beauty to make Comrade Chin, Song’s spymaster, a frighteningly ferocious ideologue–not just a bully, as she was on Broadway, but a real woman emotionally committed to a self-perpetuating revolution. In M. Butterfly, the personal is political–and both are given compelling equal weight in this finely considered production.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.