- The Washington Times - Friday, September 10, 2004

For a career diplomat, Frenchman Rene Gallimard (Stephen Bogardus), the hapless protagonist of David Henry Hwang’s play “M. Butterfly,” was certainly an innocent when it came to two basic rules: One, in the Peking Opera, all the roles are played by men. Two, never date an actor.

Rene’s unlikely naivete costs him his job, his dignity and finally his sanity in Mr. Hwang’s Tony Award-winning play based on the true-life scandal of Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu. Boursicot carried on an affair with the Chinese opera singer for 20 years, claiming never to have known that she was a he and a spy for Communist China to boot.

“M. Butterfly” premiered in Washington in 1988, when theater audiences were still relatively naive themselves about gender blending. The shock value may have worn off some over 16 years, but Mr. Hwang’s deft deconstruction of racial and sexual stereotypes Westerners hold about Eastern culture remains powerful and wrenching. Arena’s excellent revival, under the fluid direction of Tazewell Thompson, downplays the play’s political subtext, stressing instead our propensity to deceive ourselves into seeing only what we want to see.

Rene is a faintly foolish figure, the antithesis of the stereotype about the experienced and detached French seducer. The question “How could he not know?” about opera singer Song Liling (J. Hiroyuki Liao) haunts the play.

Ultimately, the answer lies in the realization that for Rene, as for many men, it was the fantasy that bewitched him, not the person. As long as Rene remained locked in his dream of the “perfect” submissive Asian female, he felt safe, powerful and, yes, loved.

Set in the 1960s and 1970s, “M. Butterfly” flirts with the American involvement in Vietnam and the emergence of communist China as a superpower. It’s not much of a stretch to read Rene’s illusions about the exotic East as a mirror of our own. However, the play is on its firmest footing when dealing with the blurred edges of sexuality, male fantasies and domination versus submission.

Mr. Bogardus plays Rene as if lost in a dream, as intractably wistful as a child who prefers imaginary friends to real company. When he meets Song, he is a midgrade diplomat, mild in ambition and inept with the ladies. His marriage to Helga (Brigid Cleary) is one of social convenience.

Once he meets Song, he feels like a dominant male for the first time. “She eats out of my hand” and “Asian women want to be treated badly” are just two of his chauvinist platitudes. Even his pet name, “Butterfly,” is both a caress and a curse.

That sense of power emboldens Rene, earning him accolades from his boss, Toulon (Terrence Currier), and even the courage to embark on yet another affair, this time with a sexually brash student, Renee (Kelly Brady, in an invigoratingly bawdy cameo).

When his fantasy life comes crashing down in Act 2, the roles are reversed. Song, who has traded in Chinese robes for an Armani suit, becomes cruel and braying, claiming that playing to Rene was his greatest acting challenge. Rene, on the other hand, adopts the fluttery hand gestures and eyes cast heavenward of a heroine in a romantic tragedy. The discovery of Song’s true nature has feminized him to the point where there is nothing left for him to do but become his ideal, the beloved Cio-Cio San, the spurned lover from “Madame Butterfly.”

As this is a play that lives chiefly in transformation and illusion, Mr. Thompson keeps the stage bare, a suggestion of a marble terrace and groupings of simple gold chairs, picked out by Robert Wierzel’s evocative lighting.

Like Mr. Hwang’s play, which blends the perfumed imagery of the East with frank, startling dialogue, Mr. Thompson uses Asian symbolism for ironic effect, such as having cherry blossoms flutter around Rene and Song at their first embrace.

As Song, newcomer J. Hiroyuki Liao holds you spellbound through stylized gestures and graceful bows that are almost absurdly feminine. The performer’s exotic beauty is well-matched by Mr. Bogardus’ gentle, restrained portrayal of Rene. Marty Lodge is arrestingly unsympathetic as Rene’s lecherous friend, and Ako contributes a muscular performance as the uncompromising Comrade Chin.

“M. Butterfly” is about how lies transform and imprison us. Rene gives up his life for a pretty deception embodied by Song — but created by himself.


WHAT: “M. Butterfly” by David Henry Hwang

WHERE: Fichandler Stage, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 17.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

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