M. Butterfly at The Guthrie Theater

Tina Chilip (Suzuki), Randy Reyes (Song Liling) and Andrew Long (Rene Gallimard) in David Henry Hwang’s M. BUTTERFLY. Photo 2010 © Michal Daniel

The Guthrie opened David Henry Hwang’s most acclaimed play, M. Butterfly, to a packed house that gave every indication of having left their own worlds behind to contemplate this inscrutable and fantastic story.

The story is launched from both a true incident involving a French diplomat and the opera, Madame Butterfly, but Puccini’s opera functions rather more like a coat hangar for the play – without it, the play falls down, but it’s not the play, either.

While serving in China, a French diplomat, Renee Gallimard (Andrew Long) meets the star of the Peking Opera, Song Liling (Randy Reyes), Gallimard is taken with Liling as Madame Butterfly and an affair commences. Unbeknownst to Gallimard, Liling is not only a man, he is a spy for the Chinese government. Gallimard freely leaks all sorts of sensitive information to his lover. Eventually, Liling is no longer useful to the Chinese, and Gallimard’s once highly-regarded opinions are proven faulty.

All this, however, seems peripheral to the madness of this affair – an obsession, really, founded in Gallimard’s perceived deep-seated inadequacies and the arrogance with which the West regards “the Orient,” particularly its women. The layers of irony quickly stack up – I suspect differently for each audience member, depending on gender, ethnicity and age, too – and include a somewhat plausible and acutely personal explanation for our failures in Viet Nam. I cannot begin to explain the intricacies of all this, which is why it’s such an interesting play.

I can tell you, though, that Long’s performance was captivating, bundling quirky comedy and tragic hopelessness in perfectly believable oneness. Reyes began as such a puzzle. While he was totally believable as a woman, he was not what I would call “beautiful,” much less the perfect woman Gallimard imagines he is. (But therein lies the first clue, you might say, to the direction this is going, and the potential scope of the play’s dilemma.) Reyes “transformation” in Act II, however, was so wonderfully subtle and exquisitely managed that I found myself accepting absolutely everything about him.

I have only two criticisms: Hwang needed to do a little editing, particularly in the revelation scene between Gallimard and Liling. There was just too much talking about things for the moment in the play. I asked my companion if she remembered a thing that was said from that scene and she said, “no.” I didn’t either. Get on with it.

I also was distracted by the scenes played on a completely black stage. More interesting lighting might have provided enough backdrop to contain the scene, but as it was, the vulnerable dialogue just sort of floated with no visual anchor. It lost me.

These two stars, Long and Reyes, are well supported by a cast playing multiple roles. Lee Mark Nelson was a bit over-the-top as Marc, but he sure knows how to time a joke. Nathaniel Fuller was ridiculously idiotic as Gallimard’s superior at the embassy. He nailed this one. Tina Chilip as Comrade Chin was just plain hilarious, and Charity Jones as Gallimard’s wife was the perfect foil for his not-so-secret relationship.

In the end, this is a truly fascinating play; you need to see this. M. Butterfly runs through June 6. Use discretion with children as there is brief nudity in this production.

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