Humor saves 'M. Butterfly' from geopolitical changes

Humor saves 'M. Butterfly' from geopolitical changes
GENDER BENDER: Song Liling (J. Manabat) and Rene Gallimard (Sam R. Ross) reunite in a scene from David Henry Hwang's "M. Butterfly," currently at the Chandler Studio Theatre. (Chandler Studio Theater)
It's been two decades since David Henry Hwang's Tony-winning "M. Butterfly" first hit Broadway. Hwang based his drama on the true-life case in which a French diplomat passed state secrets to his Chinese lover, actually a man in drag, a fact that escaped the diplomat's notice over a 20-year affair.

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. 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.


Charlotte Stoudt

"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.

Originally conceived with the stage in mind, the piece receives its first theatrical production at Hollywood's Open Fist Theatre. Fans will not be disappointed in this high-energy, song-for-song adaptation by Pat Towne and Michael Franco, which painstakingly preserves Zappa's signature coupling of sophisticated, genre-hopping compositions with acerbic comedy.

Credit director Towne and his company for inventive staging despite limited production resources, particularly in props and costumes that are in keeping with Zappa's penchant for cheesy, low-budget aesthetics.

Except for hapless Joe (Jason Paige) and his devout Catholic-turned-groupie girlfriend (Becky Wahlstrom), there is not much in the way of character development -- most of the story is told either through Jennifer Lettelleir's uninhibited choreography or the one-note narration of an omniscient floating robotic head (voiced by Michael Dunn).

While the album's dense, multi-tracked score has been simplified in Ross Wright's arrangements, the live seven-piece band acquits itself capably. Ironically, one of the high points is the penultimate number, in which (per mandate by the Zappa estate) the theater is darkened for the original recording of one of those soul-searching guitar solos in which Zappa cast off his sarcastic armor in a communion with pure music -- the celebratory heart that beats beneath all this show's layers of cynicism.


Philip Brandes

"Joe's Garage," Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 22. $25. (323) 882-6912 Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Black ops leave you in the dark

In an era of fragmented reportage and increasingly soft news, conspiracy theories proliferate. As a rule, conspiracy theorists believe that whatever the cataclysm, it has resulted from some purposeful plot. The supposition that some person or entity, however nefarious, orchestrated the mayhem is apparently more reassuring than the notion that random fate may have played a role.

More terrifying, though, is the notion that rank human incompetence was the culprit. Playwright Adriano Shaplin delves into the heart of the paranoia in "Pugilist Specialist," now at the Elephant Performance Lab. But Shaplin's scattershot drama vacillates so wildly between the conspiratorial and the random that it defies exegesis.

The plot revolves around four Marines assigned to a "black ops" operation -- the assassination of a political leader in the Middle East. Lt. Emma Stein (Kimberly-Rose Wolter), an explosives expert and the sole female in the group, is a once-rising Marine star whose career is on the decline. Communications expert Lt. Studdard (Max Williams) is an emotionless drone who no longer questions the meaning of the mission. Lt. Travis Freud (Linc Hand) is a sexist firebrand who has little regard for life and limb. Calling the shots is Col. Johns (Donald Agnelli), whose political correctness covers a nasty agenda.

Just what that agenda is remains murky. Despite his talent for crisp dialogue and epigrammatic quips, Shaplin himself seems unclear on the mission. But Allison Sie's keenly paced staging and a crisply affectless cast focus the proceedings into something approaching lucidity. Ron Saito's video design helps set the stage for impending disaster, but Shaplin's attempted indictment of a corrupt military remains pathology without purpose, a conspiracy without a comprehensible theory behind it.


F. Kathleen Foley

"Pugilist Specialist," Elephant Performance Lab, 6324 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles. 7 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Ends Oct. 19. $20. (323) 860-3283. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

Sacrament of glazed doughnuts

As gullible faith and hard-hearted defeatism collide in the face of a possible miracle, Canadian playwright Josh MacDonald's "Halo" finds its way to genuine moments of human reconciliation and acceptance, though the going is tougher than it need be in an uneven staging by Theatre 40.

In a yuletide premise ripped from EBay headlines, MacDonald's seriocomic drama revolves around the commotion in a sleepy Nova Scotia town thrown into upheaval by the apparition of the likeness of Jesus on the side of a coffee shop. Doughnuts and espresso become the new sacraments for the flocking pilgrims whose money skeptical cashier Casey Quinn (Frances Manzo) is happy to collect. A recent transplant from Halifax, Casey is frustrated by her narrow-minded neighbors, including the devoutly religious boy toy (Glen Brackenridge).

Meanwhile, in a hospital room across town, a life-and-death quandary unfolds as proud farmer Donald McMullen (David Hunt Stafford) resists pulling his comatose daughter off life support. The arrival of his other daughter (Emily Button), a failed copywriter, only causes him to dig in his heels.

Both Casey and Donald find themselves at dead ends in their lives, from which they try to extricate themselves by separate paths, which ultimately converge. MacDonald's warmhearted script lends itself to Bruce Gray's no-frills staging; more problematic is the awkward blocking and varied quality of supporting performances. Ultimately, the show hits its mark, as much by coasting on holiday sentiment as evoking authentic feeling.


Philip Brandes

"Halo," Reuben Cordova Theatre at Beverly Hills High School, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. Ends Nov. 6, check theater for schedule. $20-22. (310) 364-0535. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.