STAGE REVIEW : Magnificent 'Butterfly' at S.D. Civic

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The cliche "truth is stranger than fiction" takes on fresh meaning in David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly." Hwang based his 1988 drama on a true story he read in the New York Times, a bizarre tale involving espionage, sexual deception, fantasy ideals and East-West relations. That Hwang's story is rooted in reality adds searing resonance to this drama.

Hwang's play is based on a 20-year love affair between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Chinese opera singer Shi Peipu. The two met in Peking in 1964, and Shi convinced Boursicot that he was actually a woman. Despite the intimacy and duration of their relationship, Boursicot claimed that he never knew Shi was, in fact, a man. Boursicot claimed that he never saw his lover naked because, "He was very shy. I thought it was a Chinese custom."

As their relationship matured, Shi persuaded Boursicot to steal classified documents from the French Embassy. A French counterespionage service uncovered the case in 1983, and Boursicot is now serving time in a French jail.

"M. Butterfly" opened on Broadway in 1988 and won a slew of awards, including Tonys for Best Play, Outstanding Featured Actor and Outstanding Director/Play. The national touring production, based on the Broadway version, opened Wednesday at the San Diego Civic Theatre, and it made clear why the play received all the accolades. This is an important modern work, a challenging, intelligent drama that addresses complex issues with clarity and poetic grace.

Hwang crafted some stylistic adjustments in writing "M. Butterfly"--he changed the names of the two protagonists and created parallels between his story and Giacomo Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly"--but the essence of his play is based on reality.

The action begins in a Paris jail cell, as the diplomat Rene Gallimard (Graeme Malcolm) reflects on his sorry fate. Calling himself "the patron saint of the socially inept," Gallimard attempts to justify how he fell for opera singer Song Liling (Francis Jue): "I'm a man who loved a woman who was created by a man," he says. "Everything else falls short."

Hwang focuses his drama on the mythologies that separate Eastern culture from Western culture, as well as the myths distancing men from women. Gallimard, an aggressive Westerner, sees the passive Easterner Liling as the perfect woman. In a compelling twist, Hwang suggests that Gallimard did not actually fall in love with Liling, but rather with an image of beauty he himself created.

Because Gallimard's love for Liling is based in fantasy rather than reality, their entire relationship is a lie. Like their real-life counterparts, even though Gallimard and Liling maintained an affair for two decades, Gallimard knew nothing real about his lover, most shockingly, his sex. Throughout "M. Butterfly," Hwang makes a passionate, convincing case for the theory that this situation is a microcosm of contemporary East-West relations and the source of conflict in many troubled heterosexual relationships.

Under the co-direction of Bob Borod and the late John Dexter, Malcolm's performance is subtle, direct and utterly sympathetic. Malcolm manipulates Gallimard's self-delusion with care and detail, creating a surprising degree of believability. When Malcolm turns to the audience and says, "I have known and loved the perfect woman," the character's torment comes alive.

Jue is haunting as the gender-bending opera singer. His androgynous, lilting voice is ideal for this role, and the petite actor revels in the stylized dance movements and choreography called for in the script.

A supporting cast of foils, confidantes and plot-prompters are conspicuously well-written by Hwang and well-defined by the performers. Ray Virta produces timely comic relief as Gallimard's wise-guy buddy, Marc, and Alexandra O'Karma is splendidly understated as Gallimard's brutish, clumsy wife. Lyn Wright's depiction of the giggly American, Renee, is exaggerated, but pointedly funny nonetheless.

Eiko Ishioka's scenery and costumes stand on their own as works of art. The stark, minimalist interiors give the production a post-modern flavor, and the bold explosions of red and black embellish the production's traditional Oriental look. The costumes--Liling's bright, flowing kimonos, in particular--are beautiful creations.

Still, Hwang's play itself is the star of this show. His writing produces numerous startling images, none more breathtaking than the final scene between Gallimard and Liling. As Liling peels away his clothes to reveal his true sex, we realize that Hwang, too, has peeled away layers of deception and dishonesty.

The naked truth finally comes to the fore, and the revelation is devastatingly dramatic.

"M. BUTTERFLY"

Written by David Henry Hwang. Directed by Bob Borod and John Dexter. Sets and costumes by Eiko Ishioka. Lights by Brian Nason. Music by Giacomo Puccini and Lucia Hwong. With Graeme Malcolm, Francis Jue, Ian Stuart, Alexandra O'Karma, Ray Virta, Lyn Wright, Ann Harada, Man Wong, Erika Honda, Alan Muraoka. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday, through Jan. 5. Tickets $15-$35. At the San Diego Civic Theatre, 202 C St., downtown. 236-6510.

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