June 21, 2004
By Rob Kendt
It's not every play that explicitly spells out a staging concept for a like-minded director--and not many productions that so single-mindedly follow such a directive to the hilt.
But when Song Liling (Alec Mapa), a Peking Opera diva who's lured French diplomat Gallimard (Ayre Gross) into a longstanding affair, announces, "We're all prisoners of our time and place," we get what director Chay Yew has done to M Butterfly, David Henry Hwang's brilliant, penetrating 1988 examination of gender, empire and identity. In the East West Players production that runs through July 18, Yew has set the whole thing in a rusty, imposing prison (a startling set by Yevgenia Nayberg) from which Gallimard spins his bittersweet tale; a harsh all-clear Klaxon begins and ends each act (in John Zalewski's tension-filled sound design), and our narrator spends the evening in drab, loose regulation pyjamas, often backed by barred jail doors.
It's a stark frame for the colorful and finely shaded story of Gallimard, a nondescript Western functionary stationed in China in the late 1950s, and Song, the carefully constructed persona of a young male actor. Unhappily married to a priggish blonde (Shannon Holt), Gallimard drifts into an affair with Song--a relationship so freighted with cultural confusions and master/servant dynamics that Gallimard manages to believe he's found the submissive and solicitous "perfect woman," even as he lets her lay down the rules of their assignations. The main taboo, of course, is that "her" clothes never come off.
Our imagination is invited to fill in the rest and, in Hwang's most ambivalent and sympathetic touch, to speculate searchingly about the ways emotions, prejudices, even economics shape a thing so seemingly simple and biological as sexuality. The cultural baggage we bring to sex may be what raises it from a mere physical transaction to a more rarefied delight, but it's also what causes the complications and misunderstandings, and allows for the most elaborate self-deception.
Yew's insistently oppressive design, unfortunately, gives the game away; even when we want to be seduced along with Gallimard by the darkly thrilling world he describes, there's that set glaring down at us, sneering: Dream on, suckers--life is a prison.
While this single set allows Yew and his actors to move the play along fleetly, with disarming presentational asides that let us know it's all a story being told, he hasn't solved some of its basic problems--he often strands actors on a catwalk and has them traipse up and down visible stairs for exits and entrances. The fetish-like frisson he seems to have intended, between forbidden passions and a punishing environment, just doesn't spark off this cage-like grid.
The play really belongs to the actors, and Gross and Mapa do some absorbingly subtle work as they trade the roles of suitor and prey. Gross may in fact be too subtle--he's such a defeated nebbish that we don't quite feel the exhilaration his peers see in him when hi is career and his affair are riding high. His quiet, well-observed performance pays off, though, accumulating a full measure of heartbreak by the end.
And Mapa is otherworldly, almost frightening. He's hypnotic and daringly feisty in full Song mode, and blisteringly blunt when stripped down to his swaggering male self.
As Gallimard's sourpuss wife, the brittle Holt is surprisingly moving, and as his Alpha male ur-conscience, Erik Sorensen is pushing a bit, but the overall effect is winning. Emily Kuroda turns in a bracing, fiery performance as Song's mean-spirited Party liaison, and both Matthew Henerson, as Gallimard's blustery boss, and Jennifer Rau, as an assertive young hottie, make quick, sly work of their parts.
It's not that this Butterfly doesn't occasionally soar or flash its exotic colors, even if ironically. It's just that Yew's penitent approach puts us at an extra remove from the text. On the one hand, this has a curious equalizing effect, viewing both Western arrogance and "Oriental mystery" from outside and seeing both as means of cultural battle, perhaps not evenly matched in strength but roughly equivalent in depravity.
That's a bold insight. But it might have hit us much more powerfully if we were implicated emotionally in either of these dubious positions; if we'd been lulled, just for a moment, into enjoying the butterfly kisses of this cross-cultural love rather than being kept wide awake in Yew's hard cell.