In 1986 a French civil servant was arrested for espionage. His mistress, a Chinese opera diva, had been working as a covert agent during their time together. For eleven years, the diplomat unsuspectingly provided information to the Chinese government, ignorant of both his lover’s nationalist interests and something much more shocking: the Peking opera diva was a man. When the espionage was brought to trial, the diplomat asserted that he never knew. This arrest is the starting point for M. Butterfly at Court Theatre, a fictionalized account of this remarkable true story.
The drama begins with Rene Gallimard, a measly French advisor, sitting in a jail cell as he recounts the events of his covert relationship with his Chinese lover, Song Liling. The story weaves complex issues of East-West imperialism, sexual politics, gender, and the nature of performance itself alongside a retelling of Puccini’s classic opera, Madame Butterfly.
Playwright David Henry Hwang maintains a theatrical tone that is at once post-modern, meta, and just plain funny. The play, which received the Tony Award for best play when it premiered more than twenty years ago, is a feat of dramatic construction, and its plot exudes a confident cleverness. It carefully moves through its different critical elements, all the while operating within a structural frame that turns the initially troubling power relationship between Rene and Song on its head.
Despite the risk of its gender, racial and political elements playing out as dated, the script’s strength is still evident twenty years later. Court’s performers are a big part of this. The play’s most important role, Song Liling, played by Nathanial Braga, is an acting feat worthy of high praise. The role demands a complex and layered performance. Braga plays a Chinese spy playing the role of a female opera diva, who is further performing the role of a mistress hopelessly in love with Rene. Throughout the story, that line between what is performance and what is genuine becomes increasingly vague. Braga, while moving between his different roles, impressively never loses his central character. He remains unfailingly convincing, even as his persona of the damsel-diva crumbles around Rene.
But Braga proves to be a strong actor caught in the midst of a muddled production. Henry David Hwang’s impressive script constantly runs the risk of getting lost in its own cleverness. The human beings at the center of the play in any production of M. Butterfly are in danger of becoming simply cogs in the complex political puzzle it puts forward. Too often Court’s production proved more concerned with languishing in the cleverness of the play’s jigsaw plot than with telling a story of emotion.
Charles Newell’s direction more often than not keeps the actors emotionally removed, with scenes and interactions occurring at a distance, keeping the whole experience at arm’s length. Too many times the audience is left to wonder, is this human drama or just clockwork—an extended and didactic moral tale hiding behind a mask of performance? When Song and Rene meet for the first time, the direction and tone keep the scene at a distance that makes it hard to tell if what we are seeing is two people on stage, or just two symbols, walking metaphors for what the play constantly insists they represent.
For all the play’s aspirations to create a meta-narrative performance, M. Butterfly too often becomes caught in the trappings of a problematic production.
Even considering this, the play itself is still undeniably satisfying, and the acting is good. There is an intellectual enjoyment to be had from Court Theatre’s production of M. Butterfly, though more often than not, it is an enjoyment closer to watching an intricate and intelligent plot machine run its course rather than a genuine human story.