Artsmash Critic Tim Smith covers classical music, theater and visual arts in Baltimore and beyond

Everyman Theatre's 'M. Butterfly' revival thoughtful, uneven

Tim Smith
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

If you ever doubted that the truth can be stranger than fiction, you need only take a cursory glance at the celebrated case of love and espionage involving mid-level French diplomat Bernard Boursicot and a Chinese opera singer, Shi Pei Pu.

Just about every aspect in this story screams incredulity. But the most wildly glaring point will always be that, according to Boursicot, he failed to realize that, over the course of a two-decade affair that started in the 1960s, he was actually in a same-sex relationship.

A fictional treatment of the case was inevitable. It came in the form of David Henry Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning play “M. Butterfly,” which has been given a thoughtful, if uneven, revival by Everyman Theatre.

Next month, “M. Butterfly” is set to return to Broadway with revisions Hwang has made in light of information about that real case that came to light since he wrote the work. That should be fascinating. Much more is now known, for example, about Boursicot’s fluid sexuality (he had a male partner after the Shi affair, for one thing).

Whatever the real events, the original version of “M. Butterfly” certainly contains the stuff of absorbing theater. In addition to the curious sexual business, there’s the startling appearance of an offspring from the affair, not to mention all the spying and a trial, too.

But the play (like the languorous 1993 movie adaptation) can be frustrating in the way it skirts some issues, while overemphasizing others, especially the diplomat’s supposedly all-straight sexual inclination (nudity is added to underscore that point.)

And Hwang’s idea to use Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” as a structuring device may start out intriguingly, but, to me, ends up feeling awfully forced. Same for the play’s reliance on breaking the fourth wall, which turns pretty gimmicky by the last act.

In the end, drama turns to melodrama. And it never brings us all that much closer to understanding why Rene Gallimard (the fictionalized Boursicot) felt he had “known, and been loved by, the perfect woman” — Song Liling (the fictionalized Shi). So it’s not that easy to buy, other than for its blatant theatricality value, the method Gallimard chooses to deal with the truth at the play’s end.

Still, the stuff that does click remains telling, especially Hwang’s examination of gender and idealized gender roles, illusion and disillusion.

He also scores many a point about East-West perspectives, prejudices and stereotypes. And the play deftly weaves history into the plot — the Vietnam War, China’s Cultural Revolution.

Ultimately, though, this is a love story between a gullible man wedded to a fantasy, and another man willing to fulfill that fantasy until the veil falls, leaving both unmoored.

To keep that story gripping requires a rich aura of mystery and considerable sensual heat. More of both would boost the Everyman Theatre production, directed by Vincent M. Lancisi.

As Gallimard, Bruce Randolph Nelson starts off with a gentle, disarming delivery of the opening monologue to the audience, but the portrayal gets less nuanced and involving as the play unfolds.

(Meeting the 73-year-old Boursicot over the summer doesn’t seem to have changed the actor’s approach to the character too much. This is a familiar Nelson performance, right down to the tendency to inflect sentences with seemingly arbitrary fortissimos.)

Vichet Chum’s Song Liling comes across as studied early on, but, particularly when freed from female impersonation, achieves considerable intensity and nuance.

In the small role of Gallimard’s neglected wife, Helga, Deborah Hazlett does her usual incisive work, subtly conveying the woman’s acceptance of her place (note how she automatically picks up after her husband) and her gradual awareness of the yawning distance in the marriage.

Tuyet Thi Pham does impressive work as the stern, unyielding Comrade Chin, assigned to keep tabs on Song and the spying. Yaegel T. Welch and Christopher Bloch handle their multiple assignments vibrantly.

The set design (Yu-Hsuan Chen), dominated by a cut-out that makes me think more of a whale than anything lepidopteran, allows for efficient, if occasionally clunky, scene changes.

The most atmospheric moments — Song’s opera performance, a Communist propaganda ballet (kinetically choreographed by Chu Shan Zhu) — are wonderfully realized, with an assist from Jay Herzog’s lush lighting.

Eric Abele’s costumes add plenty of style. And Fabian Obispo expertly provides a soundtrack featuring his own music and, of course, dollops of Puccini (the Mirella Freni-Luciano Pavarotti-Herbert von Karajan “Butterfly” recording, I’m guessing).

At the end of the second act of “Madama Butterfly,” the naive heroine waits all night for the return of her beloved American naval officer. When he does come back in the third act, Butterfly must face the cruel blow of reality about their relationship.

One of the most memorable elements of Everyman’s “M. Butterfly” comes at the transition between the second and third acts, when the audience gets to watch a kind of flip side to the opera. In place of a tender vigil, we see Song at a makeup table, coolly preparing himself to be the one who will deliver a cruel blow of reality to an all too pliable Westerner.

If you go

“M. Butterfly” runs through Oct. 8 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $65. Call 410-752-2208, or go to everymantheatre.org.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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