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Review: David Henry Hwang’s ‘M. Butterfly’ takes flight in a more gender-fluid era

Review: David Henry Hwang’s ‘M. Butterfly’ takes flight in a more gender-fluid era
Lucas Verbrugghe is Rene, and Jake Manabat is Song in South Coast Repertory's production of David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly." (Jordan Kubat)

Time passes, and even a contemporary classic can use a nip and tuck. David Henry Hwang, most famous for his Tony-winning 1988 play “M. Butterfly,” performed some not insignificant cosmetic surgery on the script for the 2017 Broadway revival.

That production, directed by Julie Taymor, was short-lived. A new production, directed by Desdemona Chiang at South Coast Repertory, allows us the chance to assess the changes Hwang felt were necessary to make in an era with a less binary view of gender and a more complex perspective on East-West power relations.

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It’s notable that the director is an Asian American woman. Hwang, in an interview in the program, says he believes this is a first, though because the play has been produced so many times, he can’t entirely be sure. (Safe to say, it’s the most prominent instance.)

The staging, framed in red and black, is fluid and visually sharp. And the play, based on newspaper accounts of an espionage case with a romantic twist that was stranger than fiction, still captures the imagination with its puzzle box of intrigue.

Hwang takes an erotic enigma — that of a French diplomat who carried on an affair with a male Chinese opera singer and spy he apparently believed was a woman — and explores its cultural, gender and racial politics with analytic finesse and frisky theatricality.

The acting in Chiang’s production, however, has some weak spots, and the pacing is erratic. A few ensemble members seem at times to be under the impression that they’re performing in an intimate venue. They hesitate to command the large stage — and he, she or gender-neutral-pronoun-of-your-choice who hesitates in “M. Butterfly” is lost.

Lucas Verbrugghe, though an appealing and sensitive actor, is miscast as Rene Gallimard, the French diplomat who falls for the Chinese opera diva whose femininity is an elaborate charade. Verbrugghe’s portrayal has a modest charm, but the character seems to have wandered in from an American TV drama, possibly NBC’s “This Is Us.”

John Lithgow, who originated the role onstage, may not have been especially Gallic. But like Jeremy Irons, who starred in David Cronenberg’s 1993 film, he had an international air about him. Verbrugghe’s Rene seems like he has been to Europe maybe once — and hated it. Although I haven’t personally spoken with his character on the matter, I believe he’d prefer to be called Ron.

The more damaging issue, however, is Verbrugghe’s lack of operatic stature. For a play that engages Puccini’s opera “Madama Butterfly” as much as this one does, this is a serious setback.

Fortunately, the gap in grandeur is filled to a large extent by Jake Manabat, who plays Song Liling. Song (the role originated by BD Wong, who won a Tony for his landmark performance) is the opera singer who, in becoming Rene’s private Butterfly, ensnares him in his imperialist fantasies of submissive Asian beauty.

Dressed in elegant dresses (as stately as they are sexy) by costume designer Sara Ryung Clement, Manabat’s Song impersonates what he knows a man of Rene’s background can’t help but desire. When Song floats across the room, it’s as though a breeze has just gently parted the curtains. And when Song touches Rene, it’s as if a feather has brushed lightly against his skin, tantalizing the need for closer contact.

Is Song seducing Rene to extract diplomatic information from him to survive the Maoist regime clampdown, or is this a two-way fantasy? How much is Rene complicit in his own sexual delusion? “M. Butterfly” thrives on these unanswerable ambiguities, though the update attempts to clear up some nagging confusion.

A few of the changes Hwang made were inspired by information that was discovered about the real-life characters in the years after the play was written. The model for Song, it turned out, was known for his performance in the Chinese opera “The Butterfly Lovers,” and Hwang braids this other operatic “Butterfly” into a dramatic tapestry that seeks to bring East and West into sensual collision.

The more significant alterations concern our understanding of Song’s gender. A back story is provided about the upbringing of a character, who claims to have been raised male by parents who didn’t want another daughter. Hwang discloses this information in a way that doesn’t dispel the mystery, though there’s a stronger hint that perhaps Rene and Song are actively enjoying a homosexual relationship under the guise of a heterosexual one.

The sexual plumbing questions are now explicitly answered. The film, a more literal art, made us think about these matters more insistently than the original play, but I don’t believe they’re any of our business. My objection isn’t rooted in prudery but in artistic tact. Song’s defiant explanation to an over-curious French judge stuck me as Hwang wanting to put an end to the prying once and for all. But the indeterminacy is poetically richer than the anatomical tic-tac-toe.

“M. Butterfly,” set in a Paris prison in 1986, unfolds in flashbacks that Rene conjures up from what his mind is capable of admitting. Song occasionally challenges the partial nature of what is being depicted. The struggle between them isn’t only cultural, psychological and political — it’s also metatheatrical.

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Chiang’s production allows the conflicts between the characters to play out as a troubled dreamscape. Wielding tableaux that blend traditional Chinese culture with sleek Western modernity, Chiang turns Ralph Funicello’s swift and strategic set into a canvas for Josh Epstein’s brushstroke lighting, Annie Yee’s frolicsome choreography and Andre J. Pluess’ buoyant sound design and original music.

The associative thematic movement translates into a plot that is as circular as it is linear. Chiang’s staging deconstructs the problematic binary oppositions of East/West, male/female, heterosexual/homosexual. “M. Butterfly” today is less beholden to the actual incidents that gave rise to the play and more attuned to the flux in power dynamics that continues to shake the ground beneath our feet.

If only the ensemble members shared the theatrical decisiveness of Manabat’s Song. Chiang’s considered direction goes slack when it comes to her acting company.

Of the supporting cast, Nike Doukas as Rene’s by turns haughty and helpless wife, Agnes, and Juliana Hansen as a pair of sexually adventurous female figures who expose Rene’s sexual timidities, fare best. Aaron Blakely fumbles to make an impression in his brief appearance as Pinkerton from Puccini’s opera and bumbles as Marc, Rene’s loutish old friend who always has just the wrong piece of advice for him.

When Hwang wrote the play, Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism” and the academic rise of postcolonial theory were transforming the conceptualization of how imperialism played out culturally. The drama was in perfect harmony with the intellectual zeitgeist.

But it’s the playfulness of the work, the kaleidoscopic nature of the intrigue, that has allowed it to retain its freshness for a new age. “M. Butterfly” is at its most revealing when showing just how much of the other — any other — can never be fully known.

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‘M. Butterfly’

Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, through June 8

Tickets: $31-$91

Info: (714) 708-5555; www.scr.org

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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