“M Butterfly” has returned to Broadway after 30 years, not so much revived as revised. It was risky for playwright David Henry Hwang to tweak his career-making, Tony-winning play as extensively as he has done. How much you think that risk has paid off in the production running at the Cort Theater depends on who you are as a theatergoer. Did you see the original? How well do you know director Julie Taymor’s best work? Are you crazy about actor Clive Owen?
This seems an especially apt way of thinking about a play that is so much about the interplay between worldview and identity. It is inspired by the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot (in the play renamed Rene Gallimard) who passed state secrets to Chinese opera star Shi Pei Pu (Song Liling) whom he took for years to be his female lover, but was in fact a male spy.
Hwang, the first Asian-American playwright to have a play on Broadway, used this bizarre true story to explore both masculine attitudes towards women, and Western attitudes toward the East, and help us see the connection between the two.
Hwang’s explorations of these themes in the play remain timely, shockingly so, given the sudden massive revelations of sexual harassment, and the newly injected macho attitudes of U.S. foreign policy. But some things have changed since Hwang wrote his hit play: Much new information about the story has emerged, from books and articles and interviews at the same time that general public attitudes are more sophisticated towards such concepts as gender fluidity.
These changes may help explain why the playwright decided to pile on more details of the story, flesh out characters — for example, Liling’s spymaster, Comrade Chin, is given more stage time as is the context of the Chinese Cultural Revolution — and above all, make Song Liling less elusive. He is graphic in the courtroom scene about how he managed to deceive Gallimard for all these years (detailing how he manipulated his penis to resemble a “shallow” vagina during sex.) We are also made aware from the beginning that Song Liling is a man. Oddly, in the new version (presumably adhering more closely to the facts), Gallimard is initially aware of Song’s gender too, and only later convinces himself that Song is a woman – “the perfect woman.” (“…only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act,” Song tells us.) In the original, we don’t learn Song is male until the actor playing Song Liling, BD Wong, stripped naked.
All these added details may make the play feel more realistic; they certainly complicate it. But those of us acquainted with the original may feel that in the process of grounding the story in fact, there has been a loss of some surprise…resonance… mystique. To use the word mystique is admittedly fraught, since the play is effective in showing us how Westerners used their belief in the mystique of the East to mask their willful cultural ignorance and to justify their efforts at domination (both personally and politically.) But by letting us know what’s going on from the get-go, the audience is allowed a distance that encourages us to feel superior to the Western characters on stage rather than (as in the original) complicit with them.
“M. Butterfly” is the first Broadway show Julie Taymor is directing since “Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark,” and a cynic may speculate that her unpleasant experience with that musical helps explain how relatively toned down her visuals are in this new Broadway production. But “relative” is…relative. Paul Steinberg’s set, mostly a series of Chinese screens, may not match the uniquely inventive spectacles Taymor created for “The Lion King” on Broadway or her 2013 production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Brooklyn. But Donald Holder’s lighting design invests many a scene with dramatic intensity, and the costumes and masks, especially in the Chinese opera scenes, are gorgeous.
Clive Owen, who is usually cast as sexy and manly, is impressively persuasive as an unimpressive cipher who, as he tells us from his cell, was voted “least likely to be invited to a party” in grammar school. Jin Ha, who was the first Asian-American to play King George in “Hamilton” (in the Chicago production), offers an always watchable interpretation of the opera singer, changing in a flash from seductive and submissive to biting and bitter, and back again, but always retaining an aura of masculinity. These performances may not erase the memory of the original actors in the role, John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, but there’s a whole generation who never saw them. Even for some of us who did, the new “M Butterfly,” for all its changes, remains provocative, enlightening and entertaining.
Click on any photograph by Matt Murphy or Josef Astor to see it enlarged.
Written by David Henry Hwang; Original music by Elliot Goldenthal; Choreography by Ma Cong; Directed by Julie Taymor
Sets, Paul Steinberg; costumes, Constance Hoffman; lighting, Donald Holder; sound, Will Pickens; hair & wigs, Dave Bova; choreography, Ma Cong; original music & sound, Elliot Goldenthal;
Cast: Clive Owen, Jin Ha, Clea Alsip, Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Enid Graham, Thomas Michael Hammond, Cole Horibe, Jason Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Erica Sweany, John Leonard Thompson and Erica Wong
Runtime 2 hrs. and 20 min including one intermission