One of the best things that theater gives us is reinterpretations. We can start with Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and end up with “Miss Saigon” and “M. Butterfly.” But while the opera and the musical are deeply steeped in orientalism—the white savior and submissive Asian woman—David Henry Hwang’s play is the exact opposite. The newly-improved revival of this ingenious play at the Cort Theater, directed by the legendary Julie Taymor, opened October 26. Although the play is incredibly dark and even disturbing, the best word to describe this production is refreshing. In our current political climate, to see a play that so consciously attacks racism and the problematic ways the West views the East is so satisfying; it is proof that there is still good in the world.
One of the major reasons that this production of “M. Butterfly” is so politically powerful is its commitment to authentic Asian-ness. The same cannot be said of the play’s unwanted (yet more popular) sibling, “Miss Saigon” or it’s famous (yet evil) mother, “Madama Butterfly,” both of which are constantly and consistently surrounded by scandals of yellowface, tokenism, racialized music, a lack of native language lyrics, and problematic casting.
But “M. Butterfly” is not for the tourist or for the opera snob. It never was and it never will be; this production is certainly no exception. Taymor’s interpretation of the piece is experimental, fragmented, painful, yearning, and terrifying. This revival is above all confrontational: it will not stand by innocently while other theaters perpetuate racist stereotypes and produce orientalist works of art.
This political message is stated quite clearly in one of the initial scenes of “M. Butterfly,” which tells the story of Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen), a French diplomat stationed in Maoist China who falls in love with a singer performing the death scene from “Madama Butterfly.” When Gallimard compliments the singer, Song Liling (Jin Ha), and states how beautiful the song is, the performer laughs, stating how every white man loves the aria, because it depicts a submissive Asian woman killing herself because her European husband has moved on and married someone else. Everyone considers this tragic and beautiful, but if it was an American girl who killed herself over a boy who didn’t love her, we would consider her deranged. The critique is surprising but true, the beloved and canonical ”Madama Butterfly” is merely an orientalist fantasy.
From here Gallimard and Liling begin an illicit and illegal extramarital affair. But the adultery is not the main conflict of the plot: the sex of Liling is. Gallimard learns that in Chinese opera, men sing the women’s roles. But then Liling says that she is a woman who was forced to live as a man to please her family. In public she wear men’s pants and shirts. In private she wears silk dresses. Gallimard may be conflicted and confused, but he knows that he loves her and is willing to risk anything.
The center of the piece, and what keeps the mood tense and the audience on their toes, is the question about whether Liling is a man or a woman. In 2017 we might ask the question why there can’t be a more transgender-focused version of this play, but alas, this production does not explore any foray into non-binary or transgender identities, which is perhaps it’s one major flaw. “M. Butterfly” is, of course, based on a real life legal scandal that involved a man charged with espionage who was in a relationship with a man who was pretending to be a woman. This production even includes updates that have come to light about the real life figure, with script additions in the court room scene and in the details of the espionage scheme of Liling. “M. Butterfly” is a play that seemingly loses its impact and surprise after you see it the first time, and although this production may not be shocking to most audience members, it somehow seems still relevant.
At no point does Taymor’s direction or the performances of Owen and Ha melodramatic. Owen may be a bit overwhelmed with the heft of his role, but he works hard to portray a man in a mental crisis. But the real triumph of the piece, as was true of the original production, is the incredibly complicated performance by Ha (the role was originated by BD Wong, who was a Tony award for his performance). The two combine to make a play that is emotionally raw: it is narrated by Gallimard, who suffers mental deterioration in his prison cell, constantly replaying the events of his relationship. He directly addresses the audience while telling his story, often interrupted by Liling, who refuses to have the story simplified or made into an oriental romance, another “Madama Butterfly.”
Overall the design of the piece contributed to the haunting and dark tone. The costumes by Constance Hoffman emotionally portrayed the colorful nature of the Chinese opera and the complete lack of color in Maoist uniforms and diplomatic office attire. The lighting by Donald Holder was extremely evocative and aided in making the play feel like a deeply psychological drama. But the sets, designed by Paul Steinberg were unstable, bulky, and distracting; they included never ending reversible wall panels that depicted everything from metallic jail walls, Mao propaganda, and Chinese interiors. In addition to these designers, the production team included Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, listed as “cultural consultants,” Ma Cong as choreographer, and Elliot Goldenthal as the composer of “original music and soundscapes.” The inclusion of these four individuals once again proved how committed this production was to being authentic.
Just as Song Liling criticizes those who love the white man’s fantasies about Asia in “Madama Butterfly,” this production refuses to conform to the ideas of the East that we usually see on Broadway. In a country that is so steeped in racist beliefs, this revival of “M. Butterfly” is a political act, boldly challenging its audience to no longer accept intolerance, stigmatization, or stereotypes.