While the twist in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” no longer stuns the play’s audiences, South Coast Repertory’s revival of the 1988 Tony Award winner retains its tension-laced aura of suspense and wonderment.
Audience members who scoff at the improbable plot should be reminded that it’s indeed based on fact — the story of the relationship between French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and Shi Pei Pu, a seductive opera singer who turns out to be a male spy for Communist China.
Given this template, Hwamg spun a remarkably engaging theatrical drama that director Desdemona Chiang has fashioned into an engrossing production at SCR with two extraordinary actors in the key assignments.
Set against the background of China’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, “M. Butterfly” details the emotional confusion of the diplomat (Lucas Verbrugghe) and his fascination with the mysterious entertainer (Jake Manabat) who claims to have been a woman impersonating a man, but in fact the situation is vice-versa.
Verbrugghe brilliantly enacts the central role of Rene Gallimard, so deeply committed to his new love that he divorces his wife (an excellent Nike Doukas) even though he must return to Paris and leave his “butterfly” behind, ostensibly to bear his child. It’s a hugely challenging assignment that Verbrugghe handles passionately.
Manabat performs admirably on several levels, first as the seductive dancer, then as the diplomat’s lover and far later as the key witness in Gallimard’s trial. It’s at this point that he bares the painful truth which virtually destroys the diplomat.
Solid supporting performances are delivered by Aaron Blakely as Verbrugghe’s superior at the French embassy and Stephen Caffrey as an easygoing fellow diplomat. Melody Butiu chills as a stern disciple of Mao who rules the life of Manabat’s character.
Ralph Funicello’s no-frills setting underscores the cruel overtones of Mao’s oppressive regime. This atmosphere is amplified by the colorful costumes of Sara Ryung Clement and Josh Epstein’s stark lighting designs.
“M. Butterfly” excels as both emotional and historical drama, a searing revisit to an astonishing chapter in China’s grim ledger and a powerful production at South Coast Repertory.
If You Go:
What: “M. Butterfly”
Where: South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays through Sundays at varying curtain times until June 18
Cost: Start at $23
Call: (714) 708-5555
Tom Titus reviews local theater for TimesOC.