A new revival of the Tony Award winning drama "M. Butterfly" opened on Broadway Thursday night with Clive Owen in a starring role. Roma Torre filed the following review.
David Henry Hwang deservedly won a slew of awards for his "M Butterfly" in 1988. Could there possibly be a better play that deals with the intersection of Eastern and Western culture, not to mention that other great conundrum - the gender divide? And yet these complex issues so elegantly evoked on the page don’t translate quite as well in this current revival.
It’s based on a true story about a Frenchman convicted of espionage after a 20 year affair with a Chinese opera star turned spy. Rene Gallimard, a low-level diplomat has an affinity for the opera "Madame Butterfly." The opera's depiction of a beautiful Chinese woman who gives her life for the love of a chauvinistic American is the romantic fantasy that leads Gallimard to Song Liling. Believing that Song is a woman possessing the very same virtues as the character in the opera, Gallimard is smitten. The Cultural Revolution divides them and then brings them together with tragic consequences.
What makes the story such a stunner is that in all their years together, having a sexual relationship, Gallimard never realized that Song is a man. Jin Ha in the role is a fine actor and convincingly feminine but even with the makeup and effeminate gestures, it's hard to believe he could fool someone for so long.
The production, directed by Julie Taymor, is fluid but inconsistent and surprisingly lackluster. When Gallimard describes his enchantment with the opera, we need to feel the seduction. Instead, the staging looked more prosaic than operatic. And the set pieces, dominated by beautifully painted multi-use panels, were clumsily handled and ultimately distracting.
Clive Owen is a terrific actor. This movie stud, completely transformed into a social misfit on that stage, pulls off quite the metamorphosis.
So strong is Hwang's writing, "M. Butterfly" is riveting theatre, even when the production fails to fully take wing.