In his production at the sub-99-seat Chandler Studio Theatre, director Derek Charles Livingston takes on the formidable task of reducing the play's operatic sweep to a tiny stage. It's a transformative transition. In his staging, Livingston unearths the rich vein of humor at the play's core.
That's fortunate, because the years have not been kind to "M. Butterfly," so named because its main characters echo those in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." The fact that the play's protagonist, René Gallimard (Sam R. Ross), becomes obsessed with Chinese opera star Song Liling (J. Manabat), the delicate "lotus blossom" of his dearest fantasy, is the stuff of pure irony, a jumping-off point for Hwang's scathing examination of cultural stereotypes and gender roles.
In that respect, "M. Butterfly" still resonates. Ross effectively charts Gallimard's progression from sexual insecurity to masculine arrogance, and Manabat, clad in August Viverito's wonderful costumes, flutters and postures with a feminine delicacy that is savagely, subtly parodic.
But the ensuing decades have resulted in another layer of meaning, a patina of purely unintentional irony. No longer languishing in the shadow of the West, China has emerged as a towering superpower, the engine of the battered world economy. That critical distinction undermines the play's underlying themes of Western dominance and Eastern submission. In short, "Butterfly" has been largely reduced to a quaint period piece, a backward glance at a geopolitical situation that no longer exists.
F. Kathleen Foley
"M. Butterfly," Chandler Studio Theatre Center, 12443 Chandler Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 8. $25. (800) 838-3006. www.theprodco.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Diversion from a crummy planet
Every era of global crisis needs its extraterrestrial epic, a way to gain intergalactic perspective on human folly. Now Joel Farkas, Rick Ross and Citizens of Earth Productions present "Earth Sucks," Jonas Oppenheim's sweet, infectious rock musical at the Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood.
Meet one Earth girl who isn't easy: Echo Bell (Emily Stern, daughter of Howard) suffers from the classic plagues of any decent underage protagonist. She has one dead parent -- Mom was killed at SeaWorld -- and an emotionally distant one (Christopher Fairbanks). School bores, her iPod's played out and she's just dumped her "real aspiring session musician" boyfriend (Rawn Erickson II). But when an alien rock band takes refuge in Echo's Texas town, they need Echo's help to vanquish a nefarious pop diva (Nakia Syvonne) who is one song away from controlling the universe.
Oppenheim, who also directs, has a gleeful trash-and-vaudeville aesthetic: Mel Horan's set consists of cheap painted flats, and Arianna Pistilli's costumes feature plenty of Lycra and Lurex, and choreographers Reed Farley and Gustine Fudickar give the musical numbers a spacey, absurdist physicality.
The plot wobbles, but what keeps "Earth" spinning is its engaging score (vehemently delivered by the onstage band, whose members also play aliens), droll script and the light touch of the principal performers: Stern has a lovely nonchalant innocence; as lead singer Fluhbluhbluh, Lucas Revolution almost manages to sell you on his sock puppet; Syvonne's dry scream of wounded narcissism should be patented; and Fairbanks manages to imbue the proceedings with emotional stakes. Daffy, smart, energized -- Oppenheim's "Earth" might be fun as an after-hours show, with audience participation and more numbers with budding talent Stern.
"Earth Sucks," Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 2. $15-$25. (323) 960-7744. Running time: 2 hours.
Devoted to Zappa's vision
The late Frank Zappa's tirades against censorship may have sounded alarmist in the 1980s, but in a time when public protest can be quarantined to "free-speech zones" without a ripple of outrage, the rock icon/avant garde composer/social satirist's cautions seem downright prophetic.
Perhaps the most elaborate artistic expression of Zappa's anti-authoritarian rage was his 1979 three-act rock opera, "Joe's Garage" -- a sardonic parable about a naive guitarist's nightmare odyssey through crass commercialism and ominous totalitarianism, set in a futuristic society that outlaws music as a threat to the status quo.