Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Broadway Theater Review: M. Butterfly with Clive Owen



M. Butterfly
By David Henry Hwang
Directed by Julie Taymor
Cort Theatre

By Lauren Yarger
In the opening scene of David Henry Hwang's updated M Butterfly, getting a Broadway revival directed by Julie Taymor, mocking contemporaries of Rene Gallimard (Clive Owens) ask, "How could he not know?"

The question at hand is how Gallimard, an attaché to the French embassy in China, did not know that the Peking Opera actress with whom he had been having an affair for 20 years was, in fact, a man.

Good question, and in spite of rather graphic details about how Gallimand mistook his sexual relations with Song Liling (Jin Ha) for regular intercourse (this would be one of the rewrites to the original script), we never quite believe it and as a result, it is hard to sympathize with the character.

Such a misunderstanding might have been possible for someone who never had had relations with a woman before (and who apparently never saw his Chinese lover nude because of "her" modesty), or maybe after only one brief encounter.  But after 20 years? Add to that the fact that Gallimard also is a married man who has had sex with a woman and who probably should have been able to figure out something wasn't quite right. Thus, the basic premise for this play, which won the Tony Award in 1988, has always been lost on me.

Other critics rave about it as a love story (it is loosely based on Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly, in which a Japanese geisha is betrayed by the US Naval officer she loves (catch the opera at the Met this spring: metopera.org) and also is somewhat inspired by the espionage conviction of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot, who had been deceived by a man he thought was a woman. They also will tell you this revival is timely because of political discourse currently taking place about gender. I disagree on both points.

Instead, there is no love story here. How can Gallimard love someone he clearly doesn't know? After 20 years? Though Ha is petit and masters graceful movements in his performances at the opera (opulently staged by Scenic Designer Paul Steinberg, Costume Designer Constance Hoffman with Original Music and Soundscape from Designer Eliot Goldenthal), Ha never, ever looks like a woman. We don't get how Gallimard could have been so deceived.

Gallimard apparently receives comfort and some sexual gratification from the relationship, but doesn't offer much in return -- except to humiliate his lover from time to time, to put him in danger with the authorities and then to turn over national secrets he about how many US troops are being sent to Viet Nam and the like. He marries his wife, Agnes (Enid Graham), mostly to get ahead in his career, then hardly gives her a thought. Like most women in plays that focus on men, she is just there to be cheated on without much character development. To Graham's credit, we do get a sense of this woman's betrayal and hurt, but that just adds to the lack of sympathy we have for Gallimard.

The idea of white man's fantasies about sexual conquest of Asian women is explored a bit, and in view of recent Harvey Weinstein, et. al, scandals where women have been the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of powerful men, this idea isn't one that endears us to those who indulge either. Song Liling is the "perfect woman" created by a man "because only a man knows how a woman is supposed to act," we are told. This doesn't move me. In fact, it makes me angry. So I never feel sorry for Gallimard or understand anything he does.

As for being a timely exploration of transgender issues, where gender "doesn't matter," M Butterfly really isn’t that either. Gender does matter here. Traditionally, women are banned from the Chinese stage, so men play their roles. This is discrimination against women. Here, the male actor has homosexual urges, which are not allowed expression by the Communist government, so he offers to masquerade as a woman to seduce Gallimard and obtain classified secrets in exchange for not being arrested. He even goes so far as to convince Gallimard he has given birth to their son, but it's all deception, not someone in love getting in touch with their feminine urges.....

The production is visually pleasing, from the big-stage operas choreographed by Ma Cong to the starkly lighted prison cell (Lighting Design by Donald Holder). The two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission are surprisingly unmoving, however, except to welcome back Taymor to Broadway following the Spider-man saga. There aren't too many women directors on Broadway stages, so this moves me.

Additional casting:
Murray Bartlett, Michael Countryman, Clea Alsip, Celeste Den, Jess Fry, Jason Garcia Ignacio, Kristen Faith Oei, Scott Weber, Emmanuel Brown, Thomas Michael Hammond, Jake Manabat, Erica Sweany, John Leonard Thompson, and Erica Wong.

Additional credits:
Sound Design by Will Pickens; Wig and Hair Design by Dave Bova; Makeup Design by Judy Chin

M Butterfly flutters at the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St., NYC. Performance times vary. Tickets are $39-$139: mbutterflybroadway.com

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FACTOTRS:
-- Nudity
-- Homosexual activity
-- God's name taken in vain
-- Language
-- Sexually explicit dialogue
-- Suicide

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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