Arts & Entertainment
'M. Butterfly' layers on levels of self-delusion
JET production explores gender identity and more
By Bridgette M. Redman
Originally printed 5/10/2012 (Issue 2019 - Between The Lines News)
WEST BLOOMFIELD - When a fantasy is strong enough, our minds can convince us of just about anything.
In "M. Butterfly," a play opening this week at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre that is based on a real event, Gallimard convinces himself for 20 years that he's having sex with a beautiful, submissive Asian woman when "she" is really a male Chinese spy, Song Liling, running a honey pot scheme.
Director Arthur Beer said the playwright, David Henry Hwang, spends a good deal of the script talking about self-delusion and how "the mind is capable of flip flopping to defend its fantasies."
"Like one of Aesop's fables, the characters are busily playing out the moral," Beer said, "and the moral is about tolerance - about the damage done by racial, national, religious, or sexual prejudices - about the importance of understanding others and trying to see things from their point of view."
"M. Butterfly" is not merely a docudrama recounting the story of a French diplomat who had a decades-long affair with a male opera singer/spy. It explores issues of gender identity and how we view others through the veil of fantasy and self-delusion. The story makes full use of theatrical tools to communicate its themes.
"Hwang could have gone in any direction and instead he went in all of them - it's got pathos, comedy, tragedy, political commentary and gender identity," Beer said. "(It's) like a huge stew, it is so heavily spiced. The language is gorgeous. The characters are so memorable - you don't find them in everyday life. Hwang has a brilliant sense of humor."
Gallimard spends much of the play trying to explain how he didn't realize his lover of 20 years was a man. The actor playing him, Glen Allen Pruett, said Gallimard became fixated on the character of Madame Butterfly in Puccini's opera.
"He's always had difficulty speaking with women and treating them on an equal level," Pruett explained. "He thinks if he can find a submissive, Eastern woman, he can become the man he's always dreamed he could be. What happens in the course of the play is that he thinks he's found his version of a Madame Butterfly. Then he finds that he is the Madam Butterfly and has been compromised by love."
It's a production that has undergone several changes since it was first chosen by the JET. The original director became ill and Beer was brought in just five weeks before the performance was to open.
Beer cast the show a week after agreeing to take the job, and said he's been thrilled with the cast that, in addition to Pruett, includes Tae Hoon Yoo as Song, Andy Huff, Phil Powers, Linda Hammell, Cara Ann-Marie, Karen Minard, Chin Yag and Aejay Mitchell.
"I really am enjoying the rehearsal process a great deal because I'm watching these brilliant actors," Beer said.
He especially sung the praises of Yoo, who also goes by Big Fire. While Yoo did not have Chinese opera training, he has a degree in theater from NYU and was familiar with the tradition.
"When I asked him to walk like a geisha, he knew what I was talking about, where no one else did," Beer said. "He does a lot of research on his own. I'll suggest something to him and he'll come in with it the next day. Song is supposed to sing...(and Yoo) is singing Puccini in Italian now."
Pruett agrees that the cast is fabulous and adds that the audience becomes another character.
"I need to have a relationship with this particular audience in terms of spilling the events that led up to this incarceration and imprisonment. It's important to me to indict them as well," Pruett said. "They are in on the secret early and they're just watching the whole thing, being the person who sees life as it really is, but doesn't say anything. You just sit there snickering and thinking, 'what an idiot.'"
Beer points out that when Song strips in front of the audience it further implicates them and can leave them feeling the uncomfortable pleasure of voyeurism.
"Hwang makes you feel and then says 'caught you doing a naughty thing!'" Beer said. "The whole issue of body politics is brought up. What is it you want out of a partner? Are you content to watch or do you want to have it done for you?"
While the audience may know that Song is male, both Pruett and Beer say that Hwang handles the issue with a great deal of complexity. Gallimard is a man who thinks he is heterosexual, but is in fact a practicing homosexual for 20 years. Song takes on the role of a woman, but always self-identifies as a gay man, not a transgendered person.
Song, as a Chinese communist spy, gets punished and sent to a commune to work on a farm for having homosexual sex, even when the party sends him to do it. And even though he conducted the affair as part of a spy ring, Song still wants what Gallimard has to give him.
"He is honestly his lover. He feels betrayed when Gallimard comes to see him once he has unmasked himself. He wants Gallimard to still love him," Beer explained. "It is a very twisted, complex, interesting relationship. It is not only gender identity, but there is this whole thing about men who want women who are submissive."
It is the complexity of these issues that makes a play from 1988 still ring with relevance.
"People will go away talking about and thinking about all the different levels that David Hwang has captured in this play," Pruett said. "It still has some echoes of these issues we're struggling with today."
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday May 2-27. $36-43. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
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