WHAT ‘M. Butterfly’
WHERE Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St., Manhattan
INFO $39-$249, 212-239-6200, telecharge.com
BOTTOM LINE Dramatic love story still resonates.
Today’s audiences will find the deception that is at the heart of “M. Butterfly” far less shocking than when it won the Tony for best play in 1988. Maybe not shocking at all.
In reworking the piece for the revival that opened on Broadway Thursday night, playwright David Henry Hwang, along with director Julie Taymor, clearly recognized the need to come at the intriguing — and true — story from a different angle.
So we know from the beginning that the beautiful opera singer Song Liling (Jin Ha, in a stunning Broadway debut) who captures the heart of French diplomat Rene Gallimard (a finely-calibrated, introspective Clive Owen) is of ambiguous gender, in all probability a man. Multiple questions about their relationship arise but are never completely answered, except, in extraordinarily graphic terms, the most crucial ones involving sex and gender.
While keeping the basics of the original, Hwang has done extensive work on the piece — changing the name of one character, clarifying historical facts, cutting some scenes, adding or rearranging others. More importantly, he has filled it out with rich new details of the real story that have come to light in the years since he wrote the play, inspired then only by a two-paragraph newspaper article on the espionage conviction of a French foreign service employee and the Chinese opera singer/spy he loved.
The references to the Puccini opera “Madama Butterfly” become less important in this version, as Hwang instead focuses on the Chinese opera “The Butterfly Lovers,” about a young girl forced to live as a man in order to get an education. “It is my story,” Song tells Gallimard, who doesn’t question. The more important explorations, of course, are those involving Western/Eastern, male/female values that have always been so vital to the work.
Taymor, in her first foray back to Broadway since the problematic “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” presents the play with the spectacle she is known for. The striking set (Paul Steinberg) involves massive panels that gloriously slide and unfold in movement as carefully choreographed as the scenes from the Chinese opera interspersed throughout the play.
But looking past the beauty of the production, and its fascinating story, the play becomes eerily timely toward the end, as Song talks of “the rape mentality” that so often exists between Western men and Eastern women. The definition, according to Song: “Her mouth says no but her eyes say yes.” Chilling, when you think about today’s headlines.