Playwright: David Henry Hwang. At: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave. Tickets: 1-773-753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org; $45-$65. Runs through: June 9
M. Butterfly isn't a gay play, and director Charles Newell and his artists understand that in this vigorous production. Gallimard ( Sean Fortunato ), the unfortunate French diplomat who has a multi-year affair with a Chinese man disguised as a woman ( remember, the play is based on fact ) is unquestionably hetero. As for Song Liling ( Nathaniel Braga ), he may be gay but it's a secondary point raised only as a way by which Chinese government agents can control him. As an exploration of sexuality, it's about the Divine Androgyne who Song Liling may recognize and exploit, and which Gallimard certainly recognizes and embraces in the play's closing moments.
Much more to author David Henry Hwang's concern ( in this and other plays ) is cultural imperialism and the stereotype of the Asian persona: the perceived superiority of Western power over Eastern weakness, and the Western colonial male over the Asian female. It's a Western perception, but Song Liling exploits it to ensnare Gallimard who grows manly and confident in his false perception that he is the powerful and controlling one. In Mary Zimmerman's The White Snake, currently at the Goodman Theatre and based on a Chinese legend, a character observes "Believing is seeing," and so it was for the real French diplomat, and so it is for Hwang's Gallimard until Song Liling strips naked before him.
M. Butterfly, which was Hwang's first big commercial success, is smart writing with layers of thought and language and great theatrical flairafter all, the dazzling spectacle of Peking Opera is part of the play's story and technique. Still, the play has left me more impressed than moved. I can't get around its conflation of Madame Butterfly and a China hovering between traditional culture and Maoism. It's a brilliantly useful theatrical tool, to be sure, but it's a square peg in a round hole due to the historic enmity between the Chinese and Japanese, and because Madame Butterfly isn't Japanese at all, deriving from American sources as a short story and play before it became Puccini's Italian opera.
Be that as it may, my intellectual reservations don't carry over to the production, with which Newell and choreographer Jamie H.J. Guan ( a Peking opera veteran and master ) have done an impressive job. Fortunato, an actor of great versatility, and Braga play Gallimard and Song Liling with conviction and nuance, while Off-Loop veterans Terry Hamilton and Mark L. Montgomery add bluff bonhomie in supporting roles. Karen Woditsch inspires empathy in the underwritten role of Gallimard's wife.
The dark, heavy, cavernous concrete walls of Todd Rosenthal's setpresumably a French prisonare odd but unobtrusive, and allow free movement for Guan's ensemble in Lydia Tanji's colorful Peking Opera-inspired costumes.