at the Chicago Theatre

Philip Anglim is best known for his performance as John Merrick, the sweet-souled freak of nature in Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man. The concept in that play was that Merrick would appear onstage without elaborate makeup. There’d be no cosmetic hint of his grotesque deformity. Just the opposite, in fact: What we’d see would be the handsome, healthy, sensitive, intelligent, endearing young man locked inside the monster. A portrait of the spirit. A reverse Dorian Gray.

Anglim was perfect for the role, inasmuch as he’s a pretty gorgeous fellow: strong, slim, dancerly body; clean, youthful features; a sort of Keir Dullea innocence–but without the ghostly blankness that haunts a Dullea character’s eyes. Anglim could play the title role in a particularly worshipful production of Henry V. Or better yet, Joseph Cable–the young American Navy officer who falls in love with a Polynesian girl in South Pacific.

But can he play Rene Gallimard? Well, that’s not so easy to picture. The befuddled protagonist of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, Gallimard is not only a good deal older than Anglim can hope to seem, he’s also infinitely less poised. This is a man whose grammar-school classmates voted him “least likely to be invited to a party.” A man who won’t go to the one party he is invited to–even though it’s a guaranteed orgy–because he’s afraid he’ll be rejected. Gallimard the adolescent has so little self-esteem he can’t even seduce the fantasy girls he finds in dirty magazines. Gallimard the adult becomes the biggest joke in France when he’s jailed for passing state secrets to a Chinese opera singer with whom he’s been carrying on a mad love affair these last 20 years, never realizing she’s not only a Mata Hari but also a man.

Let’s go over that last bit again: The silly fool fails correctly to identify his transvestite lover’s true gender, even though they’ve been intimate for quite some time. This is not the sort of thing you expect from a romantic lead. Taken together with his status as a decidedly middle-level bureaucrat, his dull marriage to a woman named Helga, and his reputedly unremarkable physiognomy (“Well, he’s not very good-looking,” opines one catty sophisticate; “No, he’s not,” agrees another; “Certainly not,” adds a third), Gallimard’s little faux pas seems to peg him as more Prufrock than Casanova. A sort of eroticized Mr. Limpet: incredible, sure–but for what?

Still, there’s Anglim, onstage, not only looking gorgeous but moving athletically, gracefully as he acts out highlights from his favorite opera, Madama Butterfly. This, you tell yourself, isn’t right.

And then it starts to sink in that maybe it isn’t supposed to be right. Maybe Anglim’s what’s-wrong-with-this-picture inappropriateness is a calculated effect, meant to nudge us toward another vision of Gallimard. After all, M. Butterfly’s about nothing if not the ambiguities of perception–the ways in which culture and politics condition us to see things a certain way. Condition us, for instance, to mourn when Iraqi missiles hit Tel Aviv and call it victory when our own missiles shred the men, women, and–mostly–children of Baghdad. Clearly, Gallimard can’t see the obvious at least in part because his colonial, Eurocentric, phallocentric upbringing disposes him to look at Asians–and especially Asian women–through a gauze of prejudices and illusions, bigotries and dreams. A mythology of dominion and submission. As Song Liling, the Chinese transvestite, explains when asked how he/she could “fool” Gallimard: “One, because when he finally met his fantasy woman, he wanted more than anything to believe that she was, in fact, a woman. And second, I am an Oriental. And being an Oriental, I could never be completely a man.”

If Gallimard can be so wildly and absurdly misled about his lover, doesn’t it stand to reason that he could be mistaken about himself as well? The disjunction between Gallimard’s alleged cloddishness and Anglim’s obvious gorgeousness comes across as a signal–not that one or the other image is wrong, but that the character we’re watching is more complex and subtle, more convoluted, ambigu- ous, and psycho-ethno-geosexually fucked-up than we might have initially supposed. Basically, Anglim’s playing the Elephant Man again, only with more twists–the monster here being neither inside nor outside precisely, but in the Western air. It’s a reverse reverse Dorian Gray.

So Anglim’s not really wrong for the role. If anything, A. Mapa’s Song Liling disturbed me more: I found his drag look unconvincingly hard. B.D. Wong’s Broadway portrayal was so much sexier. But that’s my problem, isn’t it? The point is that Gallimard and Song Liling could be played by a pair of hippopotamuses and M. Butterfly would still shiver with fascinating paradoxes. The point is that this play is a masterpiece, having fulfilled the primary requirement for masterpieces–which is to be endlessly capable of sustaining variation, never running out of or forbidding interpretations but always supplying new possibilities. Always offering new ways of seeing itself and of being seen.

Well, almost always. There’s no up side that I can find for miscasting the Chicago Theatre as a venue for this play. Eiko Ishioka’s marvelous red lacquer set looks fine on the Chicago stage, but the size and acoustics of the room make hearing difficult if not futile. Too bad.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joan Marcus.